Show of acquired taste at gallery of modern art

Sand Wind and Tide by the Boyle family. Picture: Neil Hanna
Sand Wind and Tide by the Boyle family. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Intelligent choices have much to do with the success of this display of 20th century, mostly Scottish art says Duncan Macmillan

New Acquisitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a remarkably rich display for these hard times. Even so, it is by no means all that the gallery has acquired recently, but a selection chosen to illustrate some of the interesting ways in which the 20th century collection has grown.

Although it is a ten-year time-frame, most of what is on view has actually been acquired over the last two years or so. It’s a striking achievement. Many of the new acquisitions, too, are Scottish works, those chosen for the show specifically illustrating the often quirky engagement of Scottish artists with the various strands of Modernism in the middle decades of the last century.

There are some discoveries among them too. Three works by Charles Pulsford, for instance, bring to light an adventurous, but forgotten, figure of post-war Scottish painting. Patrick Elliott, who has put all this together, says with some reason that he is the fifth man, a pioneer in British post-war painting alongside Eduardo Paolozzi, Alan Davie, William Gear and William Turnbull.

A friend of Hugh McDiairmid in the 1920s, William McCance was from an earlier generation, but he is another artist who deserves to be better known and several important works have been added to the collection, notably a group of small, semi-abstract sculptures. These have been gifted by the artist’s widow, Margaret McCance, and this is typical of much that is seen here. One of the Pulsford works was bought, but two were given by the family. There is a lovely early James Cowie promised in bequest from a member of his family. Three works by Jankel Adler, including two striking monotypes in a technique similar to that used by his friend Paul Klee, were a gift from Liane Aukin and David Aukin, descendants of a close friend of the artist.

Other works have been gifts from collectors and collections. The Peter Moores Foundation, for instance, gave one of the most important works here, or rather 14 works that together constitute a single one. Sand wind and tide by the Boyle family from 1969 is composed of 14 panels, each one representing the same square of sandy beach, as the wind, tide and weather changed its appearance, morning and evening, for a week. It is nature’s own drawing faithfully recorded. Eric and Jane Cass have given works by Michael Craig Martin. A gift by Dr Angus Gibson includes a good early work by Sir Robin Philipson. Dr Allan Jamieson, another doctor with a passion for art, has left an important bequest including a very fine painting by Keith Vaughan. There is an early Paolozzi sculpture and one by Reg Butler from a similar date, both from a major bequest by Ken Powell.

Indeed, altogether there is as much generosity on display here as there is art. We owe a debt of gratitude to all these donors, for their generosity is towards us the nation, not merely to the institution. There is, however, also a work bought directly by us, the nation too, although no doubt also with the help of well-wishing visitors. One of the most striking exhibits in a striking show is a fierce-looking fish, a very early work by Eduardo Paolozzi, purchased, the label notes, with money from the donation boxes. So when you drop a few coins, or better still, notes in the box, they will be put to good use.

In all this giving, however, the single biggest donation is the Henry and Sula Walton Collection. Henry Walton, who died two years ago, was appointed professor of psychiatry in the University of Edinburgh in 1967 and latterly became professor of International Medical Education. His wife, known professionally as Sula Wolff, was a child psychiatrist. “We are both psychiatrists,” Henry liked to say, always putting the stress on “both”. Henry was South African. Sula was born in Berlin, but they made Edinburgh their home and in turn filled their Edinburgh home with art. Their collection is eclectic, but includes some very fine things.

One of the stars is a superb Picasso lino-cut, Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach. Inspired by a postcard of a painting by Cranach, it was the first of a series of prints made when Picasso first took to this medium. He was then aged nearly 80, but clearly his powers were not failing. This print is also supported by a group of half a dozen or more in the same medium by Picasso.

There are other prints by a wide variety of artists, including Cézanne, Graham Sutherland, William Scott and many others. The Waltons also collected Scottish art. There is a beautiful Alan Davie watercolour, for instance, but one of the finest works in their collection is a superb Joan Eardley seascape. Together with a still life of flowers, this will be a valuable addition to the gallery’s collection of work by this remarkable artist.

The bequest however also included a cash sum of £3 million. The single biggest cash donation the gallery has ever received, it is to be used for acquisitions for the Gallery of Modern Art, but without conditions on how it is to be spent. It could be spent on one absolutely essential thing, or split up for several, or just kept to earn interest as a useful purchase fund. I asked the galleries’ press office what the NGS’s current purchase budget is. The reply was: “The NGS as a whole no longer has a ring-fenced acquisitions budget, however NGS Trustees have tried to allocate approximately £200,000-250,000 a year towards acquisitions.” To put the Waltons’ gift in perspective, that sum is for all three galleries together and at a time when it is small change for some private collectors.

All is not lost, however. The current show demonstrates two things: that it is not the only task of the galleries to accumulate world masterpieces like some great patron of the Renaissance, well-loved though some of its great paintings are. It also has a story to tell, and I would argue one of the first stories it must tell is that of Scottish art. Secondly, particularly in that latter task, donations have been vital, but this show also demonstrates that much can be done by clever buying.

The New Acquisitions show fills the whole top floor of the SNGMA with almost 100 works, but Patrick Elliott reckons that it has cost about £200,000 altogether, and half of that sum was for a single, wonderful picture, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s The Mysterious Garden, bought with help from the Art Fund. The remaining sum covers everything else here that was purchased, not given or bequeathed. The Mysterious Garden is for instance partnered by a strangely beautiful watercolour, Sleep, by Frances Macnair, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s sister, bought too, but for considerably less than The Mysterious Garden. Indeed there are several important purchases here whose price was in the hundreds, not the hundred thousands.

Three scraper board drawings by William Johnstone are good examples of this and are acquisitions whose importance is far greater than their price. They show Johnstone was closer to the mainstream of Surrealism than any other British artist at that early date. Edward Lucas is another Scottish Surrealist. He was totally unknown till recently, but now for a very modest outlay he is well represented in the collection. An early work by Alasdair Gray is another important purchase and along with Gray, his longstanding friend and fellow Glasgow student Carole Gibbons is now in the collection too. Both works were modestly priced, but like several other works here, they are purchases that show both a welcome engagement with the story of our art and a refreshing independence of judgment in finding the works to tell it.

• New Acquisitions, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 1 March.