Artworks from the Royal Bank of Scotland's collection are to go on show to the public

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ARTWORKS from the Royal Bank of Scotland's collection are to go on show to the public, reports Tim Cornwell

ROYAL Bank of Scotland has unveiled a plan to put its multi-million-pound corporate art collection on show for the public, in venues ranging from hospitals to galleries across Scotland.

The greatest historic work in the collection, a 1759 portrait of banker John Campbell, RBS's chief official during the 1745 uprising, is being offered as a loan to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for its reopening in 2011.

Meanwhile, up to 300 works in the 15-20m collection will brighten up Scottish hospices and hospitals through the Art in Healthcare charity.

The move came in response to calls from the art world for a bank that is now 70 per cent public-owned to use its 4,000-plus artworks – including more than 2,000 paintings – as a public asset.

The bank offered The Scotsman a behind-the-scenes look at once-private treasures yesterday, from Colourist masterpieces in its modern Gogarburn boardroom to historic bank portraits in its original St Andrew Square offices.

It detailed major sales and purchases over the bank's decade-long expansion up to the eve of the bank crisis, when its art buying ground to a halt. It also confirmed it would start to sell works from the collection, mirroring the sell-off of offices and business as RBS retrenches. To the probable dismay of Scottish artists, for whom the bank has been a major customer, it will become a "net seller" of paintings and drawings.

&#149 Sir William McTaggart

The bank confirmed it had sold major paintings from the National Westminster's collection it acquired when it bought that bank. They included works by Gilbert and George, and Frank Auerbach, the latter selling for 780,000. A work by Patrick Caulfield went for about 250,000.

The most major recent purchase was of a work by Francis Boileau Cadell, the Colourist, for about 175,000.

"In a mature collection, the idea of disposing of some of the assets is that you can go and buy other things," said Frank McGarry, the group property and assets manager who oversaw the RBS collection for a decade. "That was the thought process. Auerbach was quite a harsh subject matter, difficult to place if you like. That was the reason it was sitting in storage."

He said it had been sold for the market price. "Sales are not a regular part of what we do," he added. "The Cadell was the only big purchase."

The bank disclosed details of one embarrassing episode, when a cleaner badly damaged a work by leading contemporary Scottish artist Callum Innes. She spread ammonia on the work, then tried to brush it off. An insurer paid 18,000, but the artist's dealer was said to be outraged when the insurance company moved to sell off the wrecked painting.

In a collection dating back 250 years, some 40 heritage paintings, of national or historic importance, are to be exempt from any sale plans. But they will be offered as loans, with overtures already made to the National Gallery in London, as well as Scottish galleries.

Unusually for anyone used to an art gallery setting, the artworks hanging across the RBS headquarters at Gogarburn are without labels. In the main foyer are half a dozen colourful canvases by Gay Grossart, the wife of banker and former RBS vice-chairman Angus Grossart.

Sir Angus has been a major supporter of the Scottish cultural scene and is a former chairman of the National Galleries of Scotland. Ms Grossart's work is held in several corporate collections.

"The Gay Grossarts are staying at the moment, but we are looking at a project to take artwork out of certain common areas, and put marketing images in," said Mr McGarry.

The RBS did not employ a curator to run the collection, relying instead on its own staff and arts consultants. "The last ten years have been fantastic, great projects to work on. I've been exposed to a lot of things over the years. It's been good fun," he said.

Mr McGarry said it was he, and not former RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin, who directed the purchase of nearly 20 works by a painter said to be Sir Fred's favourite, the Ayrshire-based artist Glen Scouller. They are still in the bank's collection.

"Fred never ever said to me, never ever told me specifically to go and buy anything. He left that up to me to make decisions," Mr McGarry said. "I like artwork with energy and colour."

He said: "I cannot buy Cadells and Peploes all the time," adding that he needed lower-cost paintings that worked in the corporate environment.

Of the "unfortunate" damage to the Innes painting, he said: "Ten years looking after the collection, and we have had one major incident."

One Peploe, A Still Life with Roses, has been with the RBS for "some considerable years", Mr McGarry said. Another had been added more recently.

With a new RBS chief executive and a new board, Andrew McLaughlin, group communications director, said it was looking for new ways to be open, transparent and accountable, living up to its responsibilities.

&#149 Anne Redpath

RBS backing for arts institutions in Scotland, giving 500,000 to the refurbishment of the Kelvingrove Museum and Gallery in Glasgow, for example, has clearly suffered. Since the crash, it has not contributed to two major fundraising drives at the National Galleries of Scotland, either to buy the Titian painting Diana and Actaeon or towards the 17.5 million overhaul at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

RBS has a three-stage process: first, it is working to categorise its work and make the "heritage" works accessible through loan; second, it is looking at wider loans to hospitals and other buildings; third, it aims to look at opportunities to realise value by selling work.

Of the 4,000 works, about half are prints or other lesser-value works. They were acquired as the bank embarked on its massive expansion, moving from the seventh-largest bank in the UK to a world leader.

Mr McLaughlin said: "In the period ahead, we are likely to be net sellers. Obviously, we are sensitive to market conditions and the need to dispose of any art appropriately. We will do it in a thoughtful and careful way, because we are well aware of the fragility of the art market."

What may go where

&#149 National Galleries of Scotland – an open offer to borrow from the collection has been formally extended and a meetings are taking place. At this stage, NGS has indicated an interest in borrowing a number of Scottish Colourist works, the bank said, to show in a forthcoming exhibition. They are also interested in the portrait of John Campbell by William Mosman for an exhibition celebrating the reopening of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2011.

&#149 Art in Healthcare. A pilot scheme has been agreed in principle with the Scottish charity, to get items from the RBS collection into hospices, hospitals and other healthcare buildings. An initial plan will see 40 pieces going out into hospices over the New Year. If successful this would increase to up to 300 works during 2010.

&#149 Dundee WestFest – a community-based arts festival in June 2010. Organisers have visited Gogarburn and been offered pieces by leading Dundee artists. Organisers are particularly interested in the works of the Morocco family, and may also borrow works by Sir William McTaggart. The bank has two striking works by McTaggart. The Atlantic Surf, from 1899, top, has long been part of its collection. It holds much-admired paintings by the Dundee painter and art college director, Alberto Morocco, such as the one below, his son Leon, and nephew Jack.

&#149 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum/ Royal Academy in London. A joint exhibition, Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900 is showing in 2010-11 in both Glasgow and London. The RBS has agreed to loan James Guthrie's Portrait of Lady Finlay for the full nine-month duration of the exhibitions.