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14 May 2019

Painting a picture with a diary

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen, Curator for Edinburgh and East
Hailes Castle (1816) by John Thomson; painted for the library at Newhailes
Hailes Castle (1816) by John Thomson; painted for the library at Newhailes
Diarising is something the author Margaret Atwood has called ‘the literature of witness’, mostly because it is writing enacted by the person experiencing the moment. (Introduction to A Handmaid’s Tale, 2017)

Miss Christian Dalrymple of Newhailes never married and used her private jottings as a companion, discussing and reflecting on the minutiae of her day. In her diary we can see the true self of a lady with a busy public life, both as a socialite and a business manager.

View of the front of Newhailes House
View of the front of Newhailes House

In 1792 Newhailes was inherited by a woman, which wasn’t unprecedented in Scotland in the 18th century but was unusual. Miss Christian wrote in her diary at the time: I was informed … that I was the heiress of this estate, instead of being banished from this place as I had expected.

Newhailes library

Miss Christian’s great-grandfather, Sir David Dalrymple, 1st Baronet of Hailes, bought the estate of Whitehill in 1709 and renamed it New Hailes (the family already owned Hailes Castle, main picture). David immediately commissioned a new wing for the late 17th-century villa – his aim was to create a grand library. His son James finished the interiors after his father’s death and completed the wing in the 1740s.

Newhailes library - the chimneypiece was installed in the 1740s by Sir James Dalyrmple (seen in the portrait)
Newhailes library - the chimneypiece was installed in the 1740s by Sir James Dalyrmple (seen in the portrait)

When James’s son Lord Hailes died in 1792, he passed the estate to his eldest daughter, Miss Christian Dalrymple. She used the library in a variety of ways – it became a summer drawing room, a dining room for large dinner parties and a ballroom. In 1829, Miss Christian notes in her diary that 170 guests came for supper and dancing, and she didn’t get to bed until after 4am.

Newhailes Library, 1920s
Newhailes Library, 1920s

A leaking roof

This glamorous interior did not come without cost. In 1814, it was clear the library ceiling needed extensive repairs, and the following year Miss Christian hired James Gillespie Graham to fix it.

On 18 June 1815, she writes in her diary: ... it rained heavily: the water poured through the unfinished Roof and we were forced to take down one side of the books in the Library. Nearly a month later, on 11 July, she notes that items were being hurriedly transferred from the library in anticipation of the roof being removed, which happened eight days later. When the roof was repaired and installed, Miss Christian added two glorious chandeliers set in late Georgian-style ceiling roses; lights fit for a sumptuous drawing room.

The chandelier in Newhailes library
One of the chandeliers in Newhailes library

Miss Christian also commissioned two library panels. In 1816 she asked the Duddingston artist and family friend, John Thomson, to paint two new landscapes to be set into the wall over doors that led to the hall and her newly created china closet.

Newhailes china closet, installed by Miss Christian, with the china collected by her grandmother
Newhailes china closet, installed by Miss Christian, with the china collected by her grandmother

The over-door panels depict Hailes Castle (main picture) and Tantallon Castle in East Lothian (below), both Dalrymple possessions. These probably replaced original panels by Isaac Vogelsang, who was hired by Christian’s grandfather to create over-door paintings of local views in the dining room. Vogelsang’s library originals may have been badly damaged by the water ingress.

John Thomson in Miss Christian’s diaries

In addition to his artistic pursuits, John Thomson was a minister at Duddingston Kirk from 1805–40, where Miss Christian attended church. Her diaries often mention his sermons and his frequent visits to Newhailes.

Wednesday 10 July 1805: John Thomson at Breakfast, he & all but K: went to the old Castle, where there is a new path made to shew the Cascade, rain came on & the view was not shewn to advantage …

Two days later, on Friday 12 July: Lady Rothes & all of us went to the Manse admired John Thomson’s drawings & walked by the River Side, looked at Dalquharran house, John Thomson at Dinner. Evening ... a remarkable Fiddler played …

And on Sunday 14 July: Walked in the Lady Glen with Sir A: Miss H:P: & K: who had got cold, church afternoon, John Thomson preached an excellent Sermon, Text Job 22nd Chapt. Verses 26th & 27th ‘For then shalt thou have thy delight in the Almighty & shalt lift up thy face unto God, thou shalt make thy Prayer unto him & he shall hear thee & thou shalt pay thy vows.

Thomson was an amateur landscape artist and had a studio at the foot of the manse garden on the shore of Duddingston Loch. It seems that he was a welcome companion and, as well as accompanying Miss Christian on walks and days out, he was helping her take care of the paintings at Newhailes. 

Friday 7 February: Went with H:P: & K: to Duddingston Manse, John Thomson went with us to the top of Arthurs Seat the day was rather heavy, but very pleasant, we had a charming excursion & got cakes & cheese at the Manse on our return, brought John Thomson home to Dinner. Even: Whist & Singing, then Prayers.

Saturday 8 February: Worked Lace, heard from Eleanor, her mother getting better, John Thomson went away, having first cleaned the Landscapes with oil …

Miss Christian is likely referring to a mastic varnish, which contained linseed oil, used in the early 19th century to protect paintings from dirt and dust but also to give the picture more depth and saturated colour.

View around Newhailes (1740s) by Isaac Vogelsang. The four views commissioned by Christian’s grandfather were probably the ‘landscapes’ Thomson was cleaning
View around Newhailes (1740s) by Isaac Vogelsang. The four views commissioned by Christian’s grandfather were probably the ‘landscapes’ Thomson was cleaning

In April 1806 Thomson was back to ‘clean’ the landscapes. He also sketched the house and grounds for a frequent guest of Miss Christian’s, who she describes in her diary as an honest, warm hearted, excellent young woman: Dear Hannah Pickford … an agreeable friend.

Hannah is one of many friends Miss Christian mentions in her diary. She visited Newhailes in August 1805 and on Tuesday 13 August, Miss Christian writes:

Miss Pickford in Bed all the morning, at the Aird  [the high place] where John Thomson was taking a view of the House & Ground for Miss P …

Then, a year later in July 1806, just after Hannah had left to return to London after visiting Newhailes, Miss Christian notes:

Tuesday 8 July: Miss Maria Dundas, her Brother & John Thomson at Dinner, John Thomson took a sketch of the house for H:P.

Later that year, on 16 September, Thomson played the flute for evening guests at Newhailes and again – as Christian puts it in her diary – he took a drawing of the front of the House for H:P [Hannah Pickford].

Newhailes House; the library ‘wing’ can be seen at the far end
Newhailes House; the library ‘wing’ can be seen at the far end

As the months rolled on, John Thomson and his wife are mentioned in Miss Christian’s diaries. In February 1807, for example, she notes that Thomson was at dinner and drew a beautiful Drawing with a burnt stick. A month later, on Monday 9 March, the entry reads: Mr & Mrs John Thomson & Mr Thomson Girvan at Dinner and all night. Evening spent in seeing J: Thomson draw. The following month, Miss Christian went with her friend Kitty to Duddingston Manse to give John a flute, noting in her diary: K presented a Flute to John Thomson & he gave a Drawing to Lady Hailes.

Helen Fergusson (1775) by John Thomas Seton. Lady Hailes was Miss Christian’s stepmother, Helen Fergusson
Helen Fergusson (1775) by John Thomas Seton. Lady Hailes was Miss Christian’s stepmother, Helen Fergusson; her father remarried after her mother, Anne Broun, died when Christian was only 3 years old

Social diary v business life

Work on the library ceiling at Newhailes began in earnest in June 1815. Miss Christian notes on Wednesday 14 June that Mrs Thomson was visiting. They must have been sitting in the drawing room next to the library as she records they had to move to the other side of the house because of the noise. Her diary entry reads: moved to the Chintz room on accounts of the noise putting on the new roof, the workmen begun that morning.

The chintz room is now known as the winter sitting room; in Miss Christian’s day this room was decorated with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper.
The chintz room is now known as the winter sitting room; in Miss Christian’s day this room was decorated with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper

Despite all the detail in her diaries, Miss Christian doesn’t mention the moment she hires John Thomson to paint the panels in the library. She doesn’t note that he visits to discuss or clean or take sketches. From this point on, entries for Thomson are restricted to the content of his sermons, which she summarises weekly, well into the 1830s. 

Perhaps the early days of meeting John Thomson and seeing his talent emerge was more notable to her than the event of hiring him to complete her library project. Or, maybe more likely, her diaries were for bearing witness to private events and social activity rather than detailing business transactions.

Her diaries do reveal an active interest in the day-to-day running of Newhailes, taking regular ‘airings’ and carriage rides in the grounds and keeping abreast with developments in what was then a fully working estate. She oversaw harvesting, the livestock and gardening, as well as maintaining a full staff to service the house and policies. Her diary is kept for ruminating on a servant who has run away or to note that sheep-shearing season had begun; it’s not for financial detail, which is kept separate in business ledgers.

Miss Christian’s status as an unmarried woman in possession of a grand home granted her numerous freedoms that many of her female contemporaries were not privilege to. One of these freedoms was her social activity. Having no children or dependants, Miss Christian filled a great deal of her time socialising. Her diary indicates the importance of friendship in her life and she spends a great deal of time listing the ailments of her cousins, who came to visit, or the books, games and music she absorbed in the evening hours. Her diary is for noting that the ceiling work in the library is a disruption to her social life, not to record how much she is paying the roofers, the builders or the minister who is painting new landscapes into the panels over two doors.

The diary of this genteel woman was very much focused on her day, not the days of others. She doesn’t note John Thomson’s artistic endeavours beyond the few entries mentioned above. Even though, two years after the panels were installed at Newhailes, J M W Turner visited Thomson’s home in Duddingston. And, a few years after that, Turner and Thomson would collaborate with Walter Scott to illustrate his publication, Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland (published in 1826).

Inverwick Castle – an etching by William Miller after a painting by Rev John Thomson
Inverwick Castle from Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland (1826) – an etching by William Miller after a painting by Rev John Thomson (Image source, Wikimedia Commons)

You can see John Thomson’s panel paintings in the same place they were installed over 200 years ago, above the doors in the library at Newhailes.

To see a digital surrogate of the panel painting of Hailes Castle, visit the exhibition Treasures from the Hoard: Iconic pieces of the Traprain Silver (11 May–27 October 2019) at East Lothian’s John Gray Centre, Haddington.

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