Treasures from the Fleming Collection are a delight, while the work of ‘forgotten’ artist Edwin G Lucas is interesting rather than inspiring, writes Duncan Macmillan
Radicals, Pioneers and Rebels, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh ****
Robert Powell, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh ****
Edwin G Lucas: An Individual Eye, City Art Centre, Edinburgh ***
Bill Viola: Three Women, St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh ****
John Mooney, Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh ****
Phyllis M Bone: Animal Sculptor, Georgian Antiques, Leith ****
Begun in 1968, the Fleming-Wyfold Foundation, or, as it began, simply the Fleming Collection of Scottish Art, is marking its 50th birthday with Radicals, Pioneers and Rebels at the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh. The show is a representative choice of just 24 works from a collection that now numbers more than 600. It is still growing, too, and is now one of the most important collections of Scottish art in existence. It began modestly enough with the purchase of pictures for the offices of Fleming’s Bank in London. In honour of the bank’s Scottish origins – it was founded in 1845 by Robert Fleming in Dundee – they were to be by Scottish artists, but originally also alternatively of Scottish scenes by any artist. Very early on I remember being taken round the office by David Donald, the partner in the bank responsible for establishing the collection. He bought very well, especially the Colourists. Shrewdly, too, he told me “I always make sure to accession the pictures as furniture. That way they won’t become one of the bank’s capital assets” – as an asset they would have been at risk in time of need. That too was how the collection was treated. Wonderful pictures hung on the walls above typewriters and other mundane office furniture.
Later the bank moved to new premises designed so that the collection, while still very much part of the working environment, could be seen to advantage. Later still, when in 2000 the bank was sold, whether or not David Donald’s prudence helped, with great generosity and public spirit the Fleming family bought the collection and set it up as a separate foundation. For a number of years thereafter it was based in it is own gallery in the West End of London where it demonstrated the quality and significance of Scottish art to a public unfamiliar with it. The premises were expensive and never ideal, however. The endowment was running out and in 2015 the gallery closed. Under a new director, James Knox, the Foundation became “a museum without walls.” It has become a wonderful emissary for Scottish art – and so also for Scotland – taking the collection to a wider audience than ever before with work circulated to museums and galleries around the country, but also invaluably to places where the Scottish government has a presence in British Embassies overseas.
Reflecting closely the wider collection, Radicals, Pioneers and Rebels includes both contemporary and historical work. Among contemporaries, Ephemeris is a beautiful small construction by Will Maclean. There is also a superb early Bellany, the Ettrick Shepherd, and a large early painting, the Bathers, by Alison Watt. A fine Peploe still life represents the collection’s great Colourists. There is also work by Arthur Melville, James Guthrie, EA Walton and other artists from the turn of the 19th century. Women are also very well represented. A star of the show, for instance, is Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Cecile Walton wearing red stockings and magnificent striped pantaloons and reclining nonchalantly in a haystack chewing a straw. There are also two paintings by Joan Eardley and a striking modernist picture by Millie Frood.
The show also includes two iconic Scottish pictures, however. Tom Faed’s The Last of the Clan and John Watson Nicol’s Lochaber No More. The latter is particularly beautiful. Its simple and highly formal composition gives a touching solemnity to the scene of a couple on an emigrant ship leaving forever the misty coast of Scotland. Sitting on a pile of household possessions, including their three-legged cooking pot, she is bowed in sorrow, while he looks back at the retreating shore deep in melancholy thought. Neither this picture nor the Last of the Clan were cheap, Victorian sentimentality. Highland emigration was a bitter fact of contemporary life. Imaginatively too, James Knox has matched these two great paintings with a recent acquisition, photographs of the homeless and displaced in the Calais Jungle by contemporary photographer Iman Tajik. Not only is his subject the continuing tragedy of displaced people – in a turn of the human tide, the artist is himself an immigrant to Scotland.
When you are in the Fine Art Society, you also have a chance to enjoy the prints of Robert Powell. Minutely detailed and, in the spirit of Rowlandson, rich in humour and acute observation of human behaviour, these vivid prints display a world that is familiar but nevertheless always slightly out of kilter.
The Fine Art Society is also involved in Edwin G Lucas: An Individual Eye at the Edinburgh City Art Centre. Lucas is a forgotten artist. He was a lawyer who, back in the 1930s, was ambitious to be a painter. Partly under family pressure he chose the more secure profession of the law. He never completely abandoned his first ambition, but also, although he exhibited quite regularly, he never really won recognition. He took evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art. At the time these were not a refuge for amateurs. They exactly mirrored the day classes both in syllabus and ambition, so he was not untaught. It was through the College perhaps that Lewis met ambitious young artists like William Gear and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. There is a portrait here labelled as perhaps of Gear, but to me it seems a convincing likeness of an old friend.
Lucas is also at his best when his work echoes the freedom and vigour of Gear’s early work as in a watercolour of Gareloch, for instance, from 1938, or in Moonlit Walk from the following year. The latter picture also shows that he was aware of Surrealism, however, and Schism from 1940, a rather jumbled dreamscape with echoes of Dalí and de Chirico, is a classic piece of amateur surrealism. He is earnestly trying to paint the kind of picture that sadly will only ever work if it is spontaneous. Thereafter, although he jumps around, veering at times towards Picasso, Kandinsky and even Cubism, his painting remains bogged down in his own earnestness. There are flashes of the artist that he might have been, particularly when he is more spontaneous as in a pastel of the Falls of Muick, for instance, or in a charcoal self-portrait. In a quite different mode, too, a cool, semi-abstract painting of the interior of his home in Ann Street, Edinburgh, is also convincing. But overall, although rediscovery of a forgotten artist always promises to be exciting, in his case I am not sure that it is quite as exciting as it is billed.
There are small shows all over the city at the moment. To mention just three, Bill Viola’s Three Women in St Cuthbert’s Church is worth a visit, if only for his inimitable technical command of digital media. The three women, one older, one younger and one a teenager – the three ages of woman – emerge from shadow through a wall of water, shifting from grey to coloured as they do so. Though they are fully clothed, the wet T-shirt effect makes them look like classical nudes and so we are invited to think of the Three Graces, the Three Fates, or some other tripartite classical image.
Nearby at the Scottish Arts Club there is a rare chance to see John Mooney’s exquisitely executed watercolours, all brilliantly coloured variations on the idea of the mirror image and the visual pun. Finally the most recondite show of all is a tiny exhibition of the work of animal sculptor Phyllis Bone. Penetrate the labyrinthine warehouse of Georgian Antiques in Leith and you will find 35 of her beautiful small bronze animals displayed in three elegant, glass fronted display cases almost lost among the acres of brown furniture. There is also a group of drawings nearby. A handsome catalogue by Elizabeth Cumming accompanies the show and is the first ever substantial publication on this distinguished artist.
Radicals, Pioneers and Rebels and Robert Powell until 3 September; Edwin G Lucas until 10 February 2019; Bill Viola until 26 August; John Mooney until 2 September; Phyllis M Bone until 27 August