My favourite painting: Ross Murray

'I admire the adventure, the sense of companionship and the purpose of dogs'

Alexander III of Scotland Saved from the Fury of a Stag by Colin Fitzgerald, 1786, by Benjamin West PRA (1738–1820), 144in by 205¼in, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Ross Murray says:
As an impressionable young student in Edinburgh, daily visits to the Scottish National Gallery drew me to this magnificent homage to heroism. For me, Benjamin West captures all the romanticism of the King’s Rescue, the adrenaline in this moment of intense danger and the sheer physicality when men were real men. I admire the adventure, the sense of companionship and the purpose of dogs. And they all wore stylish hats in those halcyon days! Cuidich ’n Righ (Gaelic for Help the King) became the motto of my regiment, The Queen’s Own Highlanders, after this epic legend.

Ross Murray is the outgoing President of the CLA

John McEwen comments on Alexander III of Scotland Saved from the Fury of a Stag:

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This is one of the first monumental history paintings of a Scottish subject. In mythological terms, it shows the legendary story of the origin of Clan Mackenzie, when Colin Fitzgerald, an Irish exile who found refuge at the Scottish Court, saved the King from being savaged while out hunting deer near Kincardine. In gratitude, the King granted Fitzgerald the lands of Kintail in Ross. Fitzgerald proceeded to found Clan Mackenzie, whose emblem remains a bleeding stag head.

The picture was commissioned by the 1st Lord Seaforth and Baron Mackenzie of Kintail. West, who, in 1792, was appointed President of the Royal Academy by George III on the death of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds, later bought back the picture. The King praised Alexander’s grounded horse for its accuracy, possibly West’s debt to Stubbs’s recent publication on horse anatomy.

West, born in the Quaker village of Springfield, Pennsylvania, was ‘so devoted to drawing while a Child and a Youth, that every other part of his education was neglected’. It showed later in his mistake-ridden written English. In 1760, he left America for Italy, promising his fiancée a speedy return. Such was his novelty that a blind Italian cardinal assumed he was a Red Indian.

He made a useful English contact in Italy, George III’s librarian, and, at 24, came to England: ‘I am at last arrived at the mother country, which we Americans are all so desirous to see.’ His fiancée joined him and he never left. Categorised ‘American’, he was proud to be born a British subject and remained a loyalist after American independence.