The Eglinton Tournament Watercolours

These 20 beautifully detailed watercolours by James Henry Nixon depict a historically important event. They combine to form a record of the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, one of the most remarkable and influential manifestations of the Gothic Revival in 19th century Britain which was held at the estate of the Earl of Eglinton between Irvine and Kilwinning.

The Gothic Revival was a phenomenon which gripped Europe during the mid-18th to 19th centuries. It revived and reinvented medieval forms in architecture and decorative design and led to an increased interest in classical Romanticism, painting and literature. It acted as a counter-balance to the rapid industrial progress and enlightened thinking of the age and became a method by which a world whose momentum of technological achievement seemed unstoppable, was able to hold on to the more aesthetic and romantic endeavours of its past. 

Within Scotland, Ayrshire was at the forefront of this movement, for it here that the last great event, the Eglinton Tournament was planned and held. These watercolours give us an insight into this fantastic slice of local history with all the pomp and ceremony of the day. As such it was important that when they came up for sale in 2009 that they stayed both within Ayrshire and Scotland. The successful acquisition of these works by East Ayrshire Council was made possible by Grants from The Art Fund, HLF, Barcapel Foundation and the National Acquisition Fund.

The artist, James Henry Nixon (1802-1857), was a pupil of John Martin. He was an illustrator of Walter Scott and exhibited paintings of literary and historical subjects regularly in the 1830s, including Queen Victoria's Progress to Guildhall on November 7th 1837 (exh. RA 1837, now Guildhall Art Gallery). His watercolour drawings are scarce and there are none in the collections of the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert. 

The images are drawn in pencil on individual sheets, with watercolour, heightened with gouache and touches of gold. They are in part unfinished, with decorative borders, as they were drawn to be used by the lithographers Day & Hague for a deluxe folio account of the tournament published by Colnaghi and Puckle in London 1843. 

The Shields were acquired at the same time as Nixon's artwork. They were originally manufactured to be hung above the entrances to the martial tents of the knights of the tournament and can be seen in some of the watercolour illustrations. They were produced for the tournament by Samuel Pratt. 

Pratt's passion was Arms and Armour. He set up and ran a successful 'Gothic Revival' business at No. 47 Bond Street, London from where he traded for forty years. He created detailed catalogues of armour and arms for collectors of the period and was commissioned by Lord Eglinton to supply all the armour, costumes and tents for his tournament. Pratt was praised highly for his work on this event. References are made on Pratt in the seminal The Knight and the Umbrella (An Account of the Eglinton Tournament 1839) by Ian Anstruther 1963. Pratt died at the age 73 in 1878. 

Background to watercolours:

'The Eglinton Tournament is the most obviously famous product of nineteenth- century chivalry in Britain' (Mark Girouard). Privately funded by Lord Eglinton and held in front of the Gothic revival  castle  on his Ayrshire estate in 1839, the tournament was the culmination of a number of personal, cultural, political, economic and industrial factors. In the previous half century, the early Gothic Revival epitomized by Horace Walpole's Otranto and Strawberry Hill had evolved in architectural and literary form into Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Abbotsford and myriad imitations. Mallory's and other early accounts of King Arthur and his knights, medieval courts, ceremonies and tournaments had created a new romantic obsession with recreating the Age of Chivalry in 19th century Britain. King George IV's coronation and his visit to Edinburgh had demonstrated the type of national feeling that could be generated by lavish public pomp and ceremony but it was followed by disappointment among the peerage, rising wealthy merchant classes and, indeed, the local tradesmen, in the Whigs' penny-pinching coronations of William IV and particularly of Victoria in 1838. 

Sir Charles Lamb, Lord Eglinton's step-father, was the hereditary Knight Marshall to the Court, and was one of the many Tory peers who had lost the one opportunity in their lifetime to take part in the ceremonial role to which they were entitled. Like his friend Sir Egerton Brydges, he was fascinated by heraldry and was the author of chivalric poems. In this he was imitated by his son, Eglinton's half-brother, Charles Lamb, the original owner of these drawings by Nixon. Feeling their ancient rights were under threat, they and several other friends, including the Marquesses Londonderry and Waterford, encouraged the young and wealthy Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton (1812-1861) to announce that he would hold a tournament to inaugurate a new Victorian age of chivalry. 

All interested parties convened in the autumn of 1838 at the showroom of Samuel Pratt, a decorator and dealer in antiquities who specialized in armour, who offered to provide everything from costumes and tents to gothic designs for the grandstands by the architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham. They decided on a format that would include a procession, jousting by tilt and melée, with blunted pine lances (easily snapped so no one would be injured), ceremonial roles for the marshall, king and queen of the tournament, followed by a banquet and a ball, with all attendees in appropriate costume. When the costs were realized (up to £1500 per knight) all but 19 dropped out. A successful rehearsal was held on the Finchley Road in July 1839 and the papers were filled with accounts which captured the public's imagination in Britain and around the world, and ensured that all the new steam ships and the recently opened railway line serving the area were filled to more than capacity. The opportunity to attend an actual tournament as described in the novels of Walter Scott, for a journey that would take less than a day at the cost of £3.13 shillings first class, one way from London, proved irresistible to thousands. 

On the 28th of August 1839, the day of the tournament, 100,000 people from Scotland, England, Europe and even America converged on the grounds of Eglinton Castle in Ayshire. They arrived in the area by various forms of transport the night before and on the morning of the day itself, when the roads leading to the grounds were completely impassable with traffic and people abandoned their vehicles to join the rest on foot. The grandstand could accommodate 4,000 of which 2,000 were the invited guests to attend the banquet and ball at the castle. All local hotels and larger houses were filled with those guests and their parties - the general public had to fend for themselves. They had managed well-enough overnight in random buildings, fields and hedgerows while the weather co-operated, but just as the procession was about to begin, the heavens opened and the torrential rain never ceased. The Knights processed but the Queen of Beauty and her attendants arrived at the stands in a coach, robbing all but a few of the sight of their costumes. Three tilts were held of three runs each, and even those who could see them found them tedious, as there were long pauses in between each and most resulted in complete passes. Abandoning the planned melée and the rest of the programme, the invited guests retired to the castle, their costumes ruined. The rain made a quagmire of the grounds, collapsed the jousting pavilions, and leaked through the roofs of the stands, banqueting and ball rooms. Chaos ensued when those trying to leave found there weren't enough trains or ships to accommodate them. Many gave up and stayed, having been promised the tournament would resume when the weather improved. The next day, Thursday 29th, the temporary buildings were hastily repaired and on Friday 30th of August the tilting was repeated and the rest of the full programme that had been planned for the 28th, including the melée, banquet and ball, was finally run. 

The popular and historical perception of the tournament was coloured by all of these factors, particularly the rain which added a wry comic element. But Lord Eglinton's generosity and attention to the beleaguered public gave him a reputation of good sportsmanship and chivalry which the loss of his fortune (the tournament cost him personally £40,000) and later gambling debts did not tarnish. As an event, it drew attention to Scotland and its heritage and fed the flames of the romantic Gothic Revival, helping to define the direction and form of visual culture that the new chivalric age would take during the reign of Queen Victoria. 

The event captured the public imagination; the papers were filled with accounts for months afterwards and the tournament was re-enacted in London theatres. Many accounts were published between 1839 and 1843, six of them illustrated. Of these only two were comparable with the lavish publication of 1843 after Nixon's watercolours: James Aikman's in 1839 was published by Hugh Paton in Edinburgh and had five coloured lithographs of the main events based on 'sketches taken on the spot by Mr W. Gordon'; and Hogson & Graves published an account by 'B' illustrated with eight lithographs by Edward Henry Corbould after his own drawings. The latter is the most comparable in quality and detail to the 1843 Nixon version, but it makes no mention of the rain or the lost days and is a fantastical account of the third day, Friday 30th, only, with confessed artistic license in the written and visual accounts, turning it into a modern-day version of Froissard. 

Nixon's watercolours were the most ambitious visual account and are the only original ones that are known to survive for any of these publications. Given their Charles Lamb provenance, they were evidently the 'prime' or 'official' record, advertised as 'made on the spot'. The 1843 Colnaghi & Puckle deluxe folio edition with lithographs after Nixon's drawings was dedicated to Lord Eglinton and is very rare (BL copy is printed in monochrome, NGS is hand-washed). It provided a complete text of all three days, an appendix with a full description of every costume, and each plate was accompanied by a full description of the people depicted within it, prefaced by appropriate literary quotations. Only this publication provides plates describing all the details of the procession, so that it covers not only the main events but also individual plates for the king, queen, marshall and lord of the tournament as well as every knight that took part with all of their retinues and with particular attention paid to the details of costume and heraldry. The twenty-one plates are by three lithographers working for Day & Hague in a uniform trade style, and not only the beautifully vivid colours but much of the detail and liveliness of the original watercolours by Nixon were lost in the translation. A detailed study needs to be made of the specific differences between the watercolours and lithographs but many are instantly visible, not only in the poses, heraldry and certain details, but most significantly in Nixon's two watercolour versions of the melée and accompanying instructions for changes to the composition. 

Participants were later painted in their armour and costumes and many of the trophies, lances, shields and pieces of armour still survive. Eglinton is now a public park encompassing the castle ruin and jousting grounds, and the Gothic bridge over which they processed has recently been restored. Scottish and local pride in the event has not waned and South Ayrshire council has recently set up a company, Ayr Renaissance, to regenerate the historic town and local sites. 

Kim Sloan, Curator of British Drawings and Watercolours before 1880, 
on behalf of Antony Griffiths, Keeper, Prints and Drawings, British Museum (18 August 2009).

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