Description: JAMES ARCHER R.S.W. 1824-1904 ROBERT KERSS, GAMEKEEPER AND FISHERMAN AT MOUNTEVIOT signed with monogram and dated l.r.: 1857 oil on canvas 105.5 by 76 cm.; 41½ by 30 in.
Exhibited: Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1858, no.113
Provenance: Commissioned by Lord Lothian in 1857;
Robert R. Nelson Esq., Edinburgh
Notes: In the nineteenth century Monteviot was the principal seat of William Schomberg Kerr, 8υth Marquess of Lothian (1832-1870). Lothian had a double first degree in classics and history from Christ Church, Oxford and was well-connected among artistic circles, counting George Frederick Watts and members of the Hogarth and Roxburghe clubs among his intellectual friends. Monteviot housed a rich ancestral collection of portraits and Lothian added this likeness of his gamekeeper Robert Kerss in 1857. Kerr died in July 1870 when he was only thirty-eight, following a debilitating illness.
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Robert 'Rob' Kerss was Lothian's head gamekeeper and tacksman and a famous and expert fly-fisherman, despite suffering from acute rheumatism caused by long cold nights spent watching his cairn nets. He was described as 'a very prince among Tweed boatmen' (The Rt. Hon. Sir Herbert Maxwell, The Story of Tweed, 1909, p.357) and 'a great character... he had few equals as a Fisher' (Andrew and John Lang, Highways and Byways in the Border, 1913, p.205). Archer depicted him dressed in tweed and waders standing on the banks of the river Teviot, with a fly in his hand and a freshly landed salmon at his feet. His trusty border collie is looking expectantly at his master whilst Kerss appears to be pointing proudly at his catch his ruddy weather-beaten face animated as though he were in conversation with the viewer. Kerss' prowess as a fisherman was legendary after an incident at Makerstoun in 1815 when he landed one of the largest salmon that had ever been recorded (a perfect 'one that got away' story). The rod that he is holding in Archer's portrait is likely to be that described by the Lang brothers; 'The rod with which Kerss killed so many hundreds of fish is still in the possession of one of his descendants, near Beattock. Compared with present-day masterpieces of greenheart or split cane, it is a quaint and clumsy weapon, of extraordinary thickness in the butt, and of crushing weight. The writer has handled it, and he is convinced that one hour's use could not fail to choke off for the rest of the day even the most enthusiastic of modern salmon fishers.' (ibid Lang, p.205) In the background can be seen the 150foot high Wellington Monument on the wooded slopes of Penielheugh and the rooftops of Monteviot itself, below. Painted at the height of Archer's artistic powers, with a Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail and colour, this portrait is a fascinating depiction of a member of rural society that was rarely the subject of portraiture.