It has taken a long time for artists to embrace the urban landscape. A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland shows how they moved from towns as part of the scenery to revelling in all their grimy glory.
TOWN AND CITY: SCOTLAND’S URBANISED LANDSCAPE 1700-1900
SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY, EDINBURGH
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If SELF-HARM is brought about by low self-esteem, then Scotland’s towns and cities must have had a very poor opinion of themselves in the 1950s and 60s. Think of Dundee and Glasgow. The wreckage was terrible and the replacement worse. If the damage to Edinburgh was bad but not actually catastrophic, I like to think it was because of pressure from the conservationists, however it was more likely Edinburgh’s plans were actually so grotesque they were simply unrealisable. The proposal for a road from the Pleasance cutting through the Royal Mile to continue via a tunnel through Calton Hill blighted the Southside for years. The idea was monstrous, the purpose unfathomable, the prospect real.
Such memories of the struggles to save our historic townscapes are prompted by Town and City: Scotland’s Urbanised Landscape 1700-1900, an exhibition from the National Gallery’s Prints and Drawings collection of pictures of what our Scottish townscapes were once like. It begins chronologically, with a drawing of St Andrews by John Slezer, the German military engineer who travelled around Scotland as chief engineer in charge of fortifications and in 1693 published Theatrum Scotiae, a visual encyclopedia of the nation’s cities, towns and notable landscapes. In the drawing, St Andrews is immediately recognisable, although then still snug within its medieval walls. Alongside, a view of Musselburgh and Inveresk is an example of the prints that formed Slezer’s publication. Like the St Andrews drawing, it shows a closely integrated town sitting comfortably in a wide landscape.
Following Slezer, this distant view became the preferred vision of our towns and cities. When almost a century later Archibald Rutherford drew Perth, for instance, he chose a view from outside the city to the north-east showing a medieval kirk rising above a low cluster of houses, evidently ranged along just two or three streets. It is a gentle vision, and even when Hugh William Williams painted Glasgow Cathedral in the 1820s, he shows the great church nestling in an improbable, verdant landscape. We get more intimate with the fabric and vitality of a town with Thomas Girtin’s wonderful watercolour of Jedburgh. Nevertheless, it is still an organic place, part of the landscape, its thatched roofs scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding hills. Edinburgh when Alexander Nasmyth paints it, for all its greater size, still seems at one with its environment. Even the panorama, represented here by one section of a panoramic drawing of Edinburgh from Calton Hill by Mary Stewart, Lady Elton, tends to distance the city from the viewer. It is only with Turner’s view of Edinburgh, also from Calton Hill, that we get a sense of a modern city, a lively, clattering place, wreathed in smoke and busy with people. James Cassie, too, saw Aberdeen Harbour as crowded, busy and smoky. DY Cameron’s etching of Greenock has the same sense of potent bustle. Finally in the 20th century, with Hedley Fitton’s etching of Advocates Close, we really see the clarty reality of an ancient city.
Walter Geikie, a rare poet of Edinburgh’s street life, is a notable absentee from this little show. His etchings of people in the streets of Edinburgh, buying, selling, getting drunk or just snoozing on the steps, are a unique record of street life.
HENRY KONDRACKI - WORKS ON PAPER
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SJ PEPLOE: SCOTLAND’S FIRST MODERNIST
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SCOTTISH GALLERY, EDINBURGH
Geikie had no rivals and has had few successors, but Henry Kondracki, who currently has a small show at the Scottish Gallery, has emerged as another true poet of the city. The pictures are mostly gouache or watercolour and some are tiny. Vividly painted, they directly reflect the vitality of city life. Kondracki also captures delightfully the intimacy of familiar places and the city’s changing moods. Jawbone Walk, for instance, shows the Meadows under snow. The Barclay Church raises the tall finger of it is spire. White snowflakes drift across a flat grey sky. Looking to Fife is a fragment of the panoramic view in Mary Stewart’s drawing from Calton Hill, but its mood is very different. A solitary figure with his back to us looks out across the rooftops. The picture is about our intuitive sense of place more than topography. This is especially true when Kondracki paints the wet streets in winter, with the traffic and the dazzle of lights and reflections, as he does in From the Top of the Bus, for instance, or in RSA in the Rain. It is not all winter though. The Meadows and High Summer are both lovely paintings of summer sunlight. The latter is also tiny, a little jewel of a painting.
Small very often is beautiful in painting. Upstairs in the Scottish Gallery two tiny paintings of Barra painted in 1903 are stars in SJ Peploe: Scotland’s First Modern Artist. Painted on boards small enough to hold in his left hand while he painted with his right, they are little miracles of fluent brilliance. This delightful show, which also includes work by the other Colourists, anticipates the major Peploe exhibition due to open in November at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Directed by the artist’s grandson, Guy Peploe, the Scottish Gallery has a proprietary interest, however, and the exhibition also marks the publication by Lund Humphries of a new edition of SJ Peploe, his life of his grandfather, first published in 2000. Revised, corrected and enlarged with a much better layout and considerably more illustrations, the new edition is a very handsome volume.
By the Firelight from c.1908 is a larger picture with the same marvellous fluency as the little Barra paintings. Later Peploe experimented with new ideas. Still Life with Bottle from around 1912, for instance, is angular and faceted in the cubist manner without being actually cubist. Some of his drawings from the same time, Castle Cassis, for instance, really are cubist, however, but in a much less self-conscious way. He clearly did understand the new language, but with a wife and family to support, felt he couldn’t afford to take risks with his finished work. In his painting the result suggests a slightly uneasy compromise, but in his drawings he could relax and in a little abstract design in coloured ink, he went all the way to abstraction. A big still life with a crock and apples shows he did later successfully absorb the new ideas into a style of painting that was quite his own. The group of works by the other colourists, Fergusson, Cadell and Hunter, is a nice bonus and includes an outstanding watercolour of Iona by Cadell dated 1914.
MARK I’ANSON: COALITION BLUES
OPEN EYE GALLERY, EDINBURGH
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Finally it would be remiss not to notice the retirement of Tom and Pam Wilson from the Open Eye, and to wish them well. (The gallery continues as before, but under new management.) Over the past 30 years and more since its beginnings in tiny premises in Cumberland Street, the Open Eye has introduced hundreds, if not thousands of artists to a wide public while helping to keep the work of older artists current. The gallery also successfully found a level where it could enjoy the support it needed to survive without compromising quality. Indeed, it has helped cultivate a more informed taste in its public while nourishing the confidence essential to the art market. The success of I2, where major prints by modern masters have been shown and crucially also sold, is indicative of that kind of confidence. Fittingly, the show of work by Mark I’Anson, current when the Wilsons retired on 1 October, packed a real punch. (It is now closed, but some pictures will be kept on view.) Take Plan B, for instance, helmeted policemen, batons raised against a crowd, only partly visible, so that, by implication, we too are there. Plan B, he suggests, is what is already happening in Greece. The picture is a document for our time.
• Scotland’s Urbanised Landscape runs until 10 February 2013; Henry Kondracki and SJ Peploe both run until 3 November; Mark I’Anson, run ended.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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