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8 Nov 2019

The forgotten artist of Drum Castle

Written by Marianne Fossaluzza
A framed watercolour painting of a castle, with sheep in the foreground, and a figure on the left next to a tree.
Watercolour of Drum Castle by Anna Forbes Irvine
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Like many talented women of her time, Anna Margaretta Forbes Irvine suffers from a chronic lack of recognition, partly due to the shadow cast over her by the male figures of her circle. She was a gifted watercolour painter and visited Drum Castle several times before eventually marrying the 20th laird of Drum, Alexander Forbes Irvine.

Watercolour of the turrets and rooftops of a castle with birds in the sky
Drum rooftops by Anna Forbes Irvine

Throughout her life she painted her surroundings with skill. She concentrated on landscapes and architecture, and her home, Drum Castle, is one of her most frequent subjects. In her many depictions of the castle, she chooses interesting angles, not hesitating to crop the building to offer a new, unusual perspective on well-known features. In all her works, we can see the precision of her drawing, particularly her use of shading. She displays a great mastery of composition and lighting, which gives a distinctive character to her watercolours.

Waterclour of a bay at sunset with a boat in the foreground
Bay at sunset by Anna Forbes Irvine

Anna also travelled all over Scotland, painting as she went along, probably in situ. The Trust is lucky enough to possess one of her sketchbooks, although unfortunately we can’t display it as it’s too fragile. In this sketchbook there are, of course, numerous castles and landscapes, but also several other subjects like night scenes, seascapes and interior scenes, all demonstrating Anna’s expertise of her chosen medium. And if any more proof of her skills was needed, she contributed a few sketches to the fifth volume of the famous work by MacGibbon and Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (1892).

Watercolour in dark tones of a moonlit landscape with a cross in the foreground
Moonlit landscape by Anna Forbes Irvine

Why then isn’t she more recognised? As previously mentioned, she has been particularly overshadowed by another member of her husband’s family. Painter, friend of Lord Byron, traveller and key figure in the export of artworks from Rome, Hugh Irvine has always been highlighted as the family’s artist. This is despite the fact that there are only two paintings by him in the castle compared to many watercolours by Anna. It is now time that Anna Forbes Irvine is recognised as a proper artist, given the sustained quality of her work. Like many other women, she deserves to step out of the shadow of the men around her, so that her work can be objectively considered and assessed.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about Miss Fraser and Miss Bristow of Castle Fraser and Lady Aberdeen, the trailblazer of Haddo House.

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