Time to open the vaults

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IN THE heyday of its expansion, when the Royal Bank of Scotland was buying up banks, it was also buying art. With artists ranging from David Hockney to Peter Howson, from classic portraits to colourful contemporary oils, the RBS filled the walls of its expanding empire, from Gogarburn to Manchester and overseas, often with Scottish work, old and new.

The growth of the art holdings mirrored the bank's rise, growing sharply with the acquisitions of rivals such as NatWest and with a historic collection of its own. But this past week the RBS has faced calls for its art – hundreds of pictures, from the Colourists to Jack Vettriano – to be counted as a public collection, now that the company is 70 per cent government-owned.

Experts currently working to catalogue all the oil paintings in public ownership in Britain have told The Scotsman that they expect to include the RBS collection, arguing it must now be in the public domain. The move could lift a lid on the mystery of what artworks the bank has acquired, and what it sold on.

The RBS confirmed to The Scotsman this week that it was no longer buying art, though one Scottish artist says she was selling work to the collection as recently as September 2008.

The RBS collection ranges in style from classic portraits of Scottish bankers – the 18th-century painting of William Mosman, for example – to recent work by the Turner-nominated Scottish artist Nathan Coley.

The list also includes Gay Grossart, wife of Sir Angus Grossart, the former bank director and financier who played a leading role in deciding acquisitions for the Gogarburn headquarters and other buildings. "We own a number of pieces of her work," an RBS spokeswoman says.

One of the major unanswered questions is what happened to the celebrated NatWest art collection, which the RBS acquired when it bought that bank in 2000. In 2003, former chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin had a Hockney work from the NatWest hanging in his office, along with a regency clock from its Lothbury headquarters.

It is widely thought that the NatWest works were quietly sold off, but when, to whom, and for how much – like so many transactions in the art world – remains a mystery. The RBS spokeswoman rejects the notion of a full sell-off, "though there may be one or two pieces that we no longer own".

In 2001, Edinburgh's City Art Centre showed a selection of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group Art Collection. A mix of works from the RBS's historic collection and newer acquisitions, it featured a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, Hockney's drawing Shinro, and works from Johan Zoffany (the 18th-century German painter), the Pop artist Patrick Caulfield, and Graham Sutherland. When the RBS provided a list of its "best-known works" this week, it was a roll-call of predictable Scottish names. They included Sir William McTaggart, the Colourists George Leslie Hunter, Samuel J Peploe and FCB Cadell, Anne Redpath, DY Cameron, Robert Gemmell-Hutchison, Eduardo Paolozzi and Joan Eardley. The list also included Albert Irvin, an English painter born in 1922, and the Scot Jack Vettriano, so-called "people's painter" and former coal miner.

Experts from the Public Catalogue Foundation are working on photographing and cataloguing all the tens of thousands of oil paintings in Britain that are publicly owned. They have just started work in Scotland, and believe they should now include the RBS collection.

"We are looking forward to cataloguing it," says PCF chairman Fred Hohler. "We have done the public art collections of Chequers, the Prime Minister's residence. We have done the Bank of England. We would expect, as we come to Edinburgh, to include it as one of the publicly owned collections."

There is a question over the considerable HBOS art collection, say PCF staff, the government stake in Lloyds TSB being only about 50 per cent. But, he adds: "Given the taxpayers' support for both these institutions over the past few months, we are sure they would welcome being included."

Mr Hohler has also suggested that the RBS should consider leasing or loaning the paintings, as a way of raising income.

The Scotsman has been working to piece together what is in the art collection, how and when it was acquired, and what has been sold, though the money involved is counted in the millions, a drop in the ocean against the billions lost by the bank. The commissioning of major sculptures by Paolozzi – a close friend of Sir Angus Grossart, then a bank director and a former chairman of the National Galleries of Scotland – was a high watermark of the bank's collecting.

But in recent years, according to a number of Scotland's art dealers, the bank also had been buying 'wallpaper' paintings in bulk, to cheer up its Gogarburn headquarters and other offices across Edinburgh. The choices they made inspired scorn among dealers. Sources say that Bourne Fine Art, the leading Edinburgh and London art dealer of which Sir Angus is also chairman, acted as the bank's consultants, though Grossart stepped down as a Royal Bank director in 2004. The firm states that any dealings with a client must remain confidential.

It is said that Frank McGarry, a business development manager at RBS, worked with Sir Angus and has continued to manage the collection, buying and selling paintings.

Other artists who list works in the Royal Bank's collection include leading London artist Andy Pankhurst, notable for his nude oils, and Polish-born Maria Chevska. Easier on the eye are works by Archie Forrest, known as Scotland's leading contemporary Colourist painter. Other artists collected by the bank have included John Byrne, Peter Howson, and the late John Houston. Several sources note that the collection includes paintings by Gay Grossart, Sir Angus's wife, an Edinburgh College of Art-trained painter who has held several UK exhibitions and whose work is included in several corporate collections, according to her website. One Scottish art expert, who asks not to be named, says simply: "One could query whether she is one of the leading contemporary artists."

A graduate of the Leith School of Art and the Edinburgh College of Art, Gay Grossart paints colourful abstracts, landscapes and portraits. Her website says that her "captivating canvases of land and seascapes" are "held in numerous private corporate and private collections throughout the world".

The Scottish artist Ainslie Roddick paints oils of everyday items, from household rubbish to rows of shoes. Last year she approached Mr McGarry through a friend, and in September he bought two of her works after studying her portfolio, she says.

"I wondered then how long they would be able to continue buying work. (McGarry] said at the time that a painting he'd bought 20 years ago and recently sold had made the bank quite a lot of money," she says. "I just hope the work's being shown and other people are seeing it."

The RBS clearly promoted the work of Scottish artists – sponsoring prizes for Scottish art graduates, for example.

Visitors to Gogarburn said the building's artworks reflected a "strong buying campaign" through galleries, from artists and from art school graduation shows, as well as from the Glasgow Art Fair.

Major works, such as the Colourist paintings, were kept in the various RBS boardrooms. Some works were obviously in the "comfort zone", that is, acceptable for a corporate setting, while others were more challenging – such as a Nathan Coley work, a Bridget Riley abstract, an Andy Goldsworthy photo-collage.

Sir Angus retired from the Royal Bank of Scotland board in 2005. He is now chairman of Lyon & Turnbull auctioneers, and chairman of the trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. Sir George Mathewson, the bank's former chairman, describes Sir Angus as having been the art adviser and "guiding hand".

"One of the things they did very well – Angus did – when they built the new building, was the selection of paintings there. They were carefully bought and were not expensive, but did add to the quality of the building. There was a wide selection of artists, mainly Scottish."

The most expensive purchase he can recall is a Peploe. "This is not a story about huge art collections; we are talking about modest amounts of money."

Sir Angus's office did not return calls seeking comment yesterday, and the RBS did not make Mr McGarry available for interview. "We are focused 100 per cent on getting our house in order, so we can repay the support of the taxpayer as soon as possible," says the RBS spokeswoman. "Everything we are doing has that uppermost in our minds.

"We have our art collection on display in offices and branches in the UK and internationally. We have no plans to invest in any new art in the foreseeable future."

One Scottish dealer says: "Clearly, in the past ten years, the policy of collecting art was in parallel with what was happening in the business – major expansion by acquisitions and growing their estate.

"They needed pictures to cheer up the buildings and so on. Sometimes they would buy in units of 20. It wasn't just Gogarburn … it was Manchester, Spain and London, all over the place. As the whole thing grew bigger and bigger and got out of control, they were sending out Scottish art here, there and everywhere."

THE ART OF BANKING

THE second Scottish bank whose fortunes crashed in the credit crunch also boasts a major corporate art collection that it built up during the banking boom.

For its refurbished headquarters on the Mound, HBOS embarked on a serious exercise in art collecting in recent years from the cream of contemporary Scottish artists.

Purchases included works by artists Callum Innes, Moyna Flannigan and Alison Watt, below, whose painting Echo was bought for an estimated 50,000 in 2008.

Staff at the Public Catalogue Foundation said they did not consider HBOS a public collection in the same terms as RBS's art, however.

HBOS is now part of the Lloyds Banking Group. But the government only owns 43 per cent of the group since the bail-out, not a majority share.

&#149 The Fleming Collection in central London, with a gallery and prestigious selection of Scottish paintings, has its roots in the collection built up by Flemings investment bank.

In 1968, when the bank moved to a new building, a director, David Donald, suggested buying works for the walls. He bought scores of Scottish artworks, including major paintings, in the days when prices were low.

When the deal was agreed to sell Flemings bank to Chase Manhattan Bank, the paintings were moved into the ownership of an independent charity, the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation. The Fleming Collection stages regular exhibitions and works closely with Scottish galleries, including the National Galleries of Scotland and the City Art Centre.