A Spate in the Highlands, by Peter Graham, R.A., R.S.A. (1838–1921). 1866. Oil paint on canvas. H 120 x W 176.8 cm. Collection: Manchester Art Gallery.Accession number: 1901.3. Acquisition method: gift from Sir William Cunliffe Brooks, 1901. Image kindly released by the gallery under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) licence. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Closer view of the broken bridge and cattle-herder.

In this dramatic Highlands scene, a swollen river surges past, swirling over rocks and boulders, and carrying with it a great deal of mud. The turbulent water sends up white froth in its rush. The river has evidently burst its banks, breaking apart the arched bridge near the centre of the painting. A tiny figure, having obviously survived the disaster, seems to be herding his cattle to safety on the other bank. Beyond them can be seen only trees, outlined against the hill on the other side, and a sky above as turbulent as the water. Human beings are as nothing in the face of such seething natural energy.

Victorian marine artists painted many powerful scenes of storms at sea, and shipwreck, but landscape artists were much less likely to paint floods inland, which could also be disastrous and claim lives. The Highlands were especially subject to such floods. In December 1855, for example,

A short period of intense frost had been followed in some parts of the northern district by heavy rain and floods. In Loch Broom the rivers had risen to a height unexampled even by the flood of 1849, and bridges had been carried away. [Barron 342]

This painting presents a far from nostalgic view of the Highlands, then, but one which nevertheless acknowledges their dynamic, elemental majesty. The Times thought it the most powerful landscape of the year (see Gilbert 12), and, looking back over ten years later, a critic from the Times, possibly the same one, remembered it as having "led the van of the Scotch Brigade" (Academy Criticisms, 1877, p. 92). — Jacqueline Banerjee.


Academy Criticisms, 1877 (collected criticisms of the RA exhibition for that year). Free Ebook. Google Books. Web. 16 March 2019.

Barron, James. Northern Highlands in the Nineteenth Century; Newspaper Index and Annals. Inverness: Robert Carruthers & Son, 1913. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Guelph, Toronto. Web. 16 March 2019.

Gilbert, W. Matthews. The Life and Work of Peter Graham, R.A.. London: The Art Journal office, 1899 [a very limited view is available in Google Books].

Created 16 March 2019