Art review: Heroes & Heroines, Scottish National Portrait Gallery | Alastair Cook: McArthur’s Store, Dunbar Town House

Self-portrait, c.1914 by FCB Cadell PIC: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Self-portrait, c.1914 by FCB Cadell PIC: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
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A rehang at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery tries to tell Scotland’s story beyond those who were wealthy, white and male

Heroes & Heroines ****

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Alastair Cook: McArthur’s Store ***

Dunbar Town House

The essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle was among the first to lay out the arguments for a National Portrait Gallery: to celebrate heroes, moral exemplars who stood out in their achievements, courage and integrity.

There is something of the spirit of Carlyle in Heroes & Heroines, a rehang of the SNPG permanent collection from the accession of Queen Victoria to the end of Great War, even if care has been taken to fit the definition of a hero to more modern sensibilities. Efforts have been made to include a good number of women. Fields such as education and social campaigning are emphasised over military and imperial achievements. There’s scarcely a person here you wouldn’t be happy taking home to meet your grandma. Of course, it’s still largely a testament to great (wealthy, white, male) Victorian achievers: men such as physicist James Clerk Maxwell (a smaller version of the Alexander Stoddart statue in George Street), artist David Roberts (a flamboyant Middle Eastern costume failing to mask a very Edinburgh face), geologist Hugh Miller and entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. But the inclusion of photographs and drawings makes it possible to cast the net much more widely.

The period covered by the exhibition was a time when the art of portraiture was increasingly interesting, with artists moving away from the idealisation of their subjects towards psychological realism. Alphonse Legros’ portrait of Carlyle is a good example: his lively, restive expression reveals him as a poor sitter; although he sat for more than 60 portraits, he always resented the time away from his work.

In the rare cases where a reputation is questionable, the curators raise the questions in their interpretative text. We’re told, for example, that Gladstone’s father, Sir John Gladstone, an Edinburgh merchant, is compromised by the fact that he kept slaves on his plantations, and that Earl Haig, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War (painted here by Sargent), was credited with the Allied victory but was also known as “the butcher of the Somme”.

One of the things the show does best is to bring to life stories we are unlikely to know: Ion Keith-Falconer, a champion cyclist in the 1870s who went on to become a missionary and died young, of malaria, in the Middle East; Isabella Burns Begg, the youngest sister of Robert Burns, who was eventually given a pension for her role as the custodian of his memory; Caroline Norton, who fled an abusive marriage but lost custody of her children, and became a campaigner for reform of divorce laws.

A recurring theme in the show is to give due place to the women who stood beside famous men as their intellectual and artistic equals: Thomas and Jane Carlyle, William and Catherine Gladstone, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, David Octavius Hill, the photography pioneer, and his wife Amelia, a distinguished sculptor who took on major public commissions and whose bust of her husband is on show here.

Some of the works stand out because of the artist: a bust of William Ernest Henley by Rodin; James Guthrie’s portrait of Churchill done just after the Great War; Lady Strachey (noted Suffragist and mother of Lytton) by Dora Carrington; William Nicholson’s JM Barrie, a slight, melancholy figure who seems almost dwarfed by the canvas itself. Others are notable because of the connections they explore: a photograph of the writer George MacDonald and two of his children taken by Lewis Carroll; a portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh by his friend and patron Francis Newbery.

The closing section of the exhibition is given over to photographs taken by George P Lewis in 1918, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, of women’s war work. These women, labouring in Scottish paper mills, sugar refineries and rope works, are the only people in these rooms who are anonymous. Being female and largely working-class, their contribution to history is celebrated but at one step removed. It’s an uncomfortable disjunction, but at least they are here, among the heroes, perhaps representing so many more men and women whose stories are on the margins of this version of history.

There is a long tradition in photography, going back to Hill and Adamson’s Newhaven fishwives, of documenting people at work. Fishing in the East Lothian town of Dunbar is much declined from its heyday, but there is a core of people dedicated to keeping it going, centred on McArthur’s Store, a restored 17th century building owned by Dunbar Harbour Trust and used to repair creels and maintain equipment. Photographer Alastair Cook has been documenting them since 2012, a project which culminates now in an exhibition and book. His decision to eschew the possibilities of digital photography and work in wet-plate collodion, a process which dates from the 1850s, offers both opportunities and limitations. On the sepia tinted plates, the men seem suspended in time: if it wasn’t for their fleeces and T-shirts they could be from 100 years ago, doing a job the basics of which remain largely unchanged.

Because the process requires a long exposure time, apart from a series of evocative portraits Cook concentrates on the environment – frequently mucky and inhospitable but shot through with beauty – and the boats, small and with feminine names such as Maggie and Wendy Sue.

Some of the most atmospheric shots in the exhibition show boat interiors, the windows fogged with sea water and grime. They hint at what Cook doesn’t show us, what it feels like to be at sea – his use of antique cameras means his work is, by necessity, shore-bound. Nevertheless, this is a sensitive celebration of a small and tenacious industry, reflecting a considerable investment of time on the part of the artist. If these mens’ descendants come looking for their history, they will find it richly told.

Heroes & Heroines until 31 May 2019; Alastair Cook: McArthur’s Store until 28 May