William Somerville Shanks, R.S.A., R.S.W.
- William Somerville Shanks
- tiddley winks
signed l.l.: W. Somerville Shanks
- oil on canvas
Bought from Mrs Charlotte Frank by Sir David Scott in 1962 for £60
Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, 1897, no. 407;
On loan to Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 2007 to 2008
'I don't think I have ever seen another picture by Somerville Shanks but if this is typical of his work I wonder why he is not better known, for it is really beautifully painted, the dress of the girl in the foreground is reminiscent of Sargent at his best and of course the whole picture is delightfully nostalgic, absolutely redolent as it were, of a day nursery of the 80s or 90s.' Sir David Scott
William Somerville Shanks's painting Tiddley Winks, undoubtedly his masterpiece - showing two children playing the game in a comfortably furnished interior - displays the bravura brushwork and rich colouring associated with the Scottish school of painters in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, and reveals the debt of those artists both to French Impressionism and a longstanding painterly tradition dating back to seventeenth-century masters such as Velasquez and Frans Hals.
The painter was born in Gourock in Renfrewshire, the son of John Shanks (1923-1913), a horse proprietor who made his money as a clothier and tailor to the trade in his hometown of Paisley where his forebears had been weavers. John Shanks used his connections in the cloth trade to gain experience for his son as a pattern designer working for a curtain manufacturer. However William Somerville had higher ambitions to become a professional painter and attended evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art under Fra Newbery.
An early charcoal drawing by Shanks now in the collection of the McLean Art Gallery in Greenock, depicts his father reading the Greenock Telegraph. The McLean Art Gallery also own a beautiful painting from Shanks's later career, entitled Le Rendez-vous depicts two elegant women in red and purple crinolines in a woodland glade. That picture, painted in 1949 and exhibited at the Glasgow Institute the following year, was seen and admired by Sir David Scott at the home of A. A. Maitland (it was bequeathed to the McLean in 1982).
In 1889, Shanks commenced three years study at the Académie Julian, working under J. P. Laurens and Benjamin Constant. It was during this period in Paris that Shanks was influenced by the painting style and technique of Edouard Manet. Thus Shanks learned how to manipulate tonal values and gained a particular fondness for the expressive power of dense blacks in his figurative compositions - a stylistic trait incidentally that marks a divergence from Impressionist convention, which held that shadows should be coloured. Tiddley Winks, which was exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute in 1897, is made dramatic by the placing of a large area of white - the dress of the dark-haired girl on the left - at the centre of the composition, and to place around it more sombre areas of dark colour. The girl on the right wears a black dress, relieved by embroidery and a pink ribbon at her shoulder, all of which provides a foil to her yellow hair, which falls onto her shoulders.
Shanks was a regular and prolific exhibitor at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the Royal Scottish Academy. Tiddley Winks (this spelling is given in the list of Shanks's exhibits) dates from Shanks' early period before his move to Glasgow. The richly woven fabric hanging over the edge of the table may reflect Shanks' father's profession in Glasgow whilst the overall decorative effect of the painting reflects the contemporary fashion for Japonisme and oriental lacquer decoration.
The game of tiddley winks had only been invented in 1888 and was 'all the rage' in the 1890s when Shanks painted this picture, although it was initially a parlour game for adults rather than a children's amusement. The game is very simple and involves players attempting to flip small disks (or winks) into a cup using a larger disk (or squidger).
Although Shanks was not formally a member of the Glasgow Boys, it is apparent from this work that he drew on their subjects and techniques in painting. Shanks would have known Edward Atkinson Hornel and George Henry, and he was perhaps impressed by the rich decorative patterns in their works. It is likely that he took from them an interest in depicting the innocence of childhood and also a fluid and expressive bravura technique. It is also likely that Shanks was influenced by the contemporary work of the Scottish Colourists, Samuel John Peploe and John Duncan Fergusson who shared an enthusiasm for the work of Manet. Manet was arguably the most influential artist for the most radical Scottish painters of the 1880s and 1890s and his still lifes and figurative subjects against dark backgrounds influenced almost all of the group of artists that trained in Paris and made their home in Edinburgh in the last years of the nineteenth century. Their work was marked by a sophisticated and powerful use of strong contrasts and it was this group of artists that gave Scottish art its identity and distinguished them from their English contemporaries. Shanks was similarly primarily interested in investigating the dynamic tonal contrasts of black and white, and it is likely that this reflects the art he had seen during his time in Paris in the 1880s when training at the Académie Julian. In Tiddley Winks Shanks chose the charming subject of children playing a game, but his main concern was to depict the rich contrasts of the girls' dress fabrics accented by small areas of bright colour on the embroidered tablecloth and the nasturtium flowers. The same principles were applied to Shanks's still life subjects and it is interesting that Tiddley Winks was owned by the still-life painter Eliot Hodgkin. Hodgkin visited the Scotts at Boughton in 1973 and upon seeing Tiddley Winks, exclaimed '"What a fool I was to sell that!"' However even if Hodgkin had wanted to do so, Sir David would not have sold the picture to him as it was one of his favourite paintings in his collection.