My favourite painting: The Duke of Buccleuch

The Duke of Buccleuch's art collection includes works by Thomas Gainsborough and other household names, but he chooses a piece from a more obscure painter.

The Duke of Buccleuch chooses Chalk Cliffs on Rügen by Caspar David Friedrich

‘I love this engagingly beautiful antidote to dark, damp winter nights, with its sunlit glare from the chalk cliffs, which frame a view as if to infinity over the Baltic. I love its mystery.

‘Two spectators, backs turned, risk their lives on the precipice edge in unexplained, but animated search, as their companion, arms crossed, absorbs the flickering, ephemeral tones of ocean merging into sky and two tiny, distant sailboats, stands motionless, remote.

‘Is he, to quote a contemporary Romantic poet, “feeling himself into Nature”, grappling with the sense of the unfathomable and the spiritual that lies here and at the heart of all his magical paintings? This picture makes me long to shadow him as a silent companion in his quest.’

The Duke of Buccleuch is a trustee of the Royal Collection Trust and president of the Georgian Group. The Buccleuch art collection includes works by Thomas Gainsborough, Anthony van Dyck and Claude Lorrain.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Chalk Cliffs on Rügen

Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, a town on the Baltic Sea in what is now Germany. Throughout his life, he visited Rügen, a large island a few miles to the north that is famed for its soaring chalk cliffs. This painting was based on a visit in 1818 with his young wife, Caroline, as part of their honeymoon.

Friedrich believed the Divine was present in everything, from the blades of grass fringing a cliff edge to the infinite seas. In his works, he often provided a figure with their back to the viewer, an anonymous character into whose shoes you could step to contemplate the sublime landscape for yourself. Chalk Cliffs was painted at a similar time to Friedrich’s celebrated Wanderer above a Sea of Fog and the wanderer returns here, leaning against a tree and gazing out to sea. The boats below are reduced to tiny triangles and the white cliffs suck you in and down as if you are falling into an abyss.

It’s tempting to see the two trees and the figures under them as Caspar and Caroline. The trees curve around to touch like hands across a divide. But if this pair symbolises the honeymooners, then what of the third man, crawling on his hands and knees to examine the grass? Perhaps this is also Friedrich. The two men represent a double portrait, showing Friedrich’s fascination with the terrifying power of Nature, as well as his desire to represent life as accurately as possible.

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