Art review: A Capital View - The art of Edinburgh

THE City of Edinburgh’s first-class collection of Scottish art is too rarely seen, but within that larger whole the wonderful collection of pictures of the city itself is even less well known.

North Bridge and Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, from the North West, by Adam Bruce Thomson. Picture: Contributed
North Bridge and Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, from the North West, by Adam Bruce Thomson. Picture: Contributed

A Capital View: The art of Edinburgh

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City Art Centre, Edinburgh

A-Z: An alphabetical tour of Scottish art

City Art Centre, Edinburgh

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Now, however, a wide selection of these pictures has been put on show accompanied by the publication of A Capital View: the Art of Edinburgh, A Hundred Art Works from the City Collection, a beautifully produced book written by Alyssa Popiel, whose initiative the whole project has been, and published by Birlinn.

The exhibition is not limited to the pictures in the book, however, but is supplemented by a variety of other works. Nor indeed are all hundred on view.

The city’s remarkable topography might explain the fascination it has held for artists although Sir Walter Scott certainly also helped make it an object of romantic interest. It is also true, however, that Scotland’s artists have tended to congregate in the capital. They painted what was around them and the diversity of the pictures here reflects a vivid sense of the city as a living organism, from gracious streets to clarty corners, from glittering assemblies to rumbustious street fairs.

The exhibition is prefaced with a superb painting by John Bell. Dated 1870, it is of Edinburgh from the west, but the view is dwarfed by the huge hole that was Craigleith Quarry that fills the foregrund. The stone for the New Town was quarried here and the enormous hole gives a sense of the scale of that project. (Filled in, this monument to the city’s ambition is now a shopping centre.)

Bell paints cranes high above dizzy cliffs, men like ants in an upside down anthill and huge blocks of stone cut and ready to be moved, but he has lavished most care on the twists and folds of the geological strata revealed by the quarrying. If the hole in the ground encapsulates the ambition of the New Town, the geology invokes the Enlightenment, for of all the contributions to human knowledge made at that time, it was perhaps James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, the foundation of modern geology, that had the most profound impact on how we understand the world and our place in it.

After this magnificent introduction, the story begins with early schematic representations of Edinburgh. The first recognisable rendering of the city’s familiar profile is John Slezer’s engraving of the North Prospect of the City of Edinburgh, dating from the 1690s. It was William Delacour, however, who in 1759 pioneered the painting of the city on a grand scale with his eight-foot wide View of Edinburgh. In Signature of Auld Reekie, a cloud of smoke rises on a westerly wind above the city’s skyline. Holyrood is in the foreground, the abbey still standing. It collapsed just a few years later under the weight of a new stone roof.

The exhibition is punctuated by grand, distant views like this one. One of the finest, taken from the south, is attributed to Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston. John Ewbank painted George IV’s procession along Princes Street in 1822 looking down from Calton Hill, but though Royalty was the occasion for this spectacle, it was the crowds and the play of light that fascinated the painter in this beautiful picture.

David Roberts painted the city from the Water of Leith. Donaldson’s Hospital looks grand in the foreground, but the city’s monumental buildings are ranged beyond it as though in a view of Rome or Athens. When in the late 19th century John McWhirter painted Edinburgh from Corstorphine, it was still very much Auld Reekie and shrouded in a veil of smoke.

One of the finest of these grand views is Adam Bruce Thomson’s 1930s painting looking east across North Bridge from somewhere high above Princes Street. A bus trundles across the bridge while Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags loom magnificently above the scene. Matthew Draper, Kate Downie and Henry Kondracki bring this tradition up to date. The two latter do so with much greater informality, however, and it is the informal pictures of the bustle of daily life and the images of lost or unfamiliar corners of the city that really give this exhibition its edge.

William Stewart Watson, for instance, paints a charming little dairy at Holyrood that evidently served the debtors taking sanctuary in the abbey precincts as they once could. William Wilson records Colinton Station in an etching, while in exquisite watercolour, Bruce James Home paints details of the architecture of buildings in the Old Town now gone.

The people are there too, however, in formal portraits by Ramsay, Raeburn and Robert Scott Lauder, but also in Walter Geikie’s etchings, in James Howe’s wonderfully chaotic All Hallows Fair and in DO Hill’s calotypes. One outstanding little picture is Robert Noble’s painting of an old lady at a tenement door in Plainstanes Close. William Fettes Douglas’s Village of the Water of Leith from Rothesay Terrace is a masterpiece of vertical perspective, but is even more fascinating for all the details of life going on in the houses and their yards beneath while cows graze in the fields beyond.

DO Hill’s view of Greyfriars Kirkyard is suitably gloomy. With echoes of Hamlet, a grave digger entertains a smartly dressed couple, no doubt with tales of grave robbers, but nearby, oblivious to the gloom, a soldier and his wife teach their little girl to walk. In a little painting of the view from the Calton Hill, Hill includes Rock House where he had his studio and his camera is set up in the foreground.

In Charles Halkerston’s View of Princes Street from the Mound, painted in 1843, where the National Gallery now stands there is a circus with an elephant parading outside, but a circular building in the foreground was put up to house “Messrs. Marshall’s Peristrephic Panoramas”, the sign clearly legible. The panorama, a huge, cylindrical painting that you viewed from within, was invented in Edinburgh by Robert Barker and watercolours from one of Barker’s original Edinburgh panoramas are included in the show. At the opening of the exhibition, however, Edinburgh company Pufferfish projected a small watercolour version of one of Barker’s panoramas from the crown of St Giles in an electronic, spherical format they have invented. Initially, they had no idea that their invention followed in Barker’s footsteps, but clearly his spirit lives on.

It is a great shame that this lovely exhibition is only on show until the beginning of July. The good news, however, is that the lower ground floor of the City Art Centre has recently opened as permanent home to a rotating display of the city’s collection. It is a small space, but it is an important step towards making the collection better known. The first exhibition is A-Z, an Alphabetical Tour of Scottish Art; it runs from A for Sir William Allan down to Z for Aleksander Zyw. Points are stretched here and there to complete the alphabet, but the show includes some lovely things.

Allan Ramsay’s youthful portrait of Katherine Hall of Dunglass and James Mackintosh Patrick’s Stobo Kirk are well known, but always good to see. Other pictures like DM Sutherland’s Winter Landscape, West Cults, for instance, are less well-known, while Alexander Nasmyth’s drawing of the Trinity College Kirk is a wonderful, but unfamiliar record of that building. More recent additions to the collection include a superb Alan Davie and a lovely abstract by Francis Thwaites acquired in a gift this year.

All in all the city is to be congratulated for keeping this magnificent collection alive and evolving, but it would be nice to see the balance shift away from temporary exhibitions brought in and to focus instead on shows like these that draw on the richness of the permanent collection.

• A Capital View runs until 6 July; A-Z: An Alphabetical Tour of Scottish Art runs until 16 November