Art review: Hugh Buchanan at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Surgeons Hall by Hugh Buchanan at the 
Scottish Gallery
Surgeons Hall by Hugh Buchanan at the Scottish Gallery
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Edinburgh’s civic masterpiece is celebrated in this wonderful show, writes Duncan Macmillan

Hugh Buchanan: New Town

The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh *****

The achievements cities claim for themselves are generally by proxy: not theirs, but their sons’ and daughters’. For a city to be able to claim a major and enduring achievement on its own as a corporate body is rare indeed. Edinburgh is such a rarity however. The New Town – or New Towns as it turned out after almost 70 years of building – really was the creation of the city itself, initiated by its visionary Lord Provost, William Drummond. You wouldn’t know it, for the city has looked askance at its creation ever since. Begun in 1767, this is the quarter millennium of the start of this stupendous project, but where do we see the city celebrating its own greatest achievement? Nowhere. No fanfares, so far at least, and what has been done to draw the attention of visitors, to offer interpretation, or clear the traffic that chokes the New Town and is shaking its buildings to pieces? Nothing that I have noticed. So far it seems, this major anniversary of our philosophic city, the embodiment of the Enlightenment in stone, its architecture proposing an ideal of human order in the wider order of nature, will pass unremarked by the city that created it. Indeed, if at all, this notable anniversary has been marked by the council’s approval of the Turd on the site of the St James Centre. Even worse than the grim monstrosity it will replace, the building is an insult to all architecture, but especially to the New Town that it will dominate.

In the absence of any civic celebration, the Scottish Gallery has taken the initiative and has asked Hugh Buchanan to mark this notable date with a collection of paintings of Georgian Edinburgh. Buchanan has always painted architecture and watercolour has been his chosen medium, but with these watercolours, some on a near monumental scale, he has responded to the challenge of Edinburgh’s Georgian heritage with works that have a new clarity and grandeur.

One group of paintings are superb studies of sunlit Georgian interiors. Their opulence might perhaps tend to confirm the City’s long-standing prejudice against the New Town as a bastion of privilege. But that is quite wrong. The majority of its living spaces are much more modest, but, at the city’s far-sighted behest, all are characterised, nevertheless, by the same harmonious proportions and the same access to essential, health-giving light and space. From the outside, however, because of their uniformity, nothing betrays the relative wealth of those who live behind the facades. It is egalitarian.

What Buchanan captures most brilliantly is that pervading harmony of proportion and the importance of light. He does this by focusing in the majority of his pictures, not on daylight, but on artificial light. Artificial light is definitively modern and so brings it all into the present. These paintings, therefore, are not, like Prince Charles’s Poundbury, an essay in Georgian nostalgia. They are an assertion that the ideals we have inherited from the Enlightenment, embodied in the stone of these buildings that surround us, are every bit as pertinent now as they were then.

Buchanan also acknowledges those who have gone before him. The great Colourist, FCB Cadell, was both inhabitant and painter of the New Town. He understood and celebrated its beauty and its vision of light and harmony, perhaps nowhere so brilliantly as in his painting The Orange Blind. It is a picture of the interior of his flat in Ainslie Place lit by the light blazing through an orange blind drawn against the late evening sun of midsummer. In a series of pictures, Buchanan takes Cadell’s theme of the orange blind, but he sees it not from the interior, but from outside, glowing with light from within. This displays the proportions of the window based on the Golden Section and echoed in the astragals, but any austerity that suggests is then offset by the flowing silhouette of a cast iron balcony. It suggests Rothko as much Cadell, but really it is pure Buchanan. He creates similar studies in near abstract harmony with paintings of the portico of Surgeons’ Hall, for instance, lit from within, or a detail of the portico of the RSA building, also lit from within. In fact he turns details of several building into marvellous autonomous compositions. Most striking of all such close focus images perhaps is his superb, large painting of the steps of Robert Adam’s grand entrance to Edinburgh University’s Old College. The building is a temple of learning and learning has left its mark. Buchanan records how the steps, once perfectly regular, are now irregular, worn away over the centuries by countless students’ feet. It is a picture the University really ought to own.

If Buchanan asserts modernity by choosing to see buildings lit by artificial light, they are otherwise in darkness. This device conveniently makes the all-pervading car invisible. (Other great cities with which Edinburgh likes to compare itself manage to remove the cars altogether, however.) But again defying any accusation that he has left out that most ubiquitous symbol of modernity for the sake of nostalgia, Buchanan has created a series of very bold compositions which incorporate cars directly. He has painted Charlotte Square, St Stephen’s Church and other buildings all reflected in the shiny paintwork of parked cars. The results are strikingly modern as indeed is all the work in this truly remarkable show.

Until 1 July