Obituary: Robin Hutchison MA, curator

Born: 4 August, 1922, in Edinburgh. Died: 7 January, 2013 in East Yorkshire, aged 90.

Robert Edward Hutchison (always known as Robin) served as keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 1953 to 1982, the longest holder of that post in the gallery’s history. When I joined him as assistant keeper in 1967, he was a formidable, but always kindly, figure in the then quite small Scottish art gallery and museum world, with an immense knowledge of the history of his subject, gleaned not from a conventional academic training but from first-hand working knowledge of Scotland’s art, helped by a family background that was a part of that same world.

Descended from the Hutchison flour-milling dynasty of Kirkcaldy, he was the son of (Sir) W O Hutchison, an innovative artist in his time, who would go on to become a highly successful portrait painter, principal of the Glasgow School of Art and president of the Royal Scottish Academy.

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His mother was Margery Walton, daughter of the painter E A Walton, the most original of the “Glasgow Boys”. Margery’s sister was Cecile Walton, one of the most interesting painters of the early 20th century.

Joseph Crawhall, another of the Glasgow Boys, and George Walton, designer and associate of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, were great-uncles. Robin had many engaging tales of these relatives and their circle, a vital chapter in the history of early modern Scottish art.

Despite this very Scottish background, Robin was sent to school at Gresham’s, in Norfolk, the origin no doubt of his patrician (though always genial) tone of voice. The end of his school days coinciding with the start of the Second World War, he volunteered for service with the Black Watch.

He soon found himself fighting in Burma. I never heard him speak much of that experience but I do know that he felt uncomfortable in Japanese company (though his immense courtesy would never allow this to show). Part of that difficulty stemmed from the fact that the father of his wife, Heather Bird, who he had married in 1946, had been brutally executed in the course of the war.

Giving up any thought of remaining in the army, in 1949 Robin was taken on at the Portrait Gallery to assist the keeper, A E Haswell Miller, in getting the gallery re-hung and re-opened to the public after many years of closure. It was the beginning of his life’s work. By 1953, he had succeeded Haswell Miller as keeper and was soon joined by the late Basil Skinner as his assistant. They became a famous team in the Edinburgh art world of the 1950s and 1960s, and to take the place of Skinner, as I did in 1967 when he moved to the University of Edinburgh, was quite a tough call, despite 
Robin’s warm welcome.

As a curator, Robin was always inventive. Long before such things became commonplace in galleries and museums, he had introduced a system of descriptive labels, with each portrait, that attempted to say something about the painting itself as well as the life of the subject – this at a time when information at the National Gallery, for example, was confined to little more than artist and title.

Another early innovation was the introduction of a series of annual exhibitions that became a feature of Edinburgh’s summer festival. Some of the most memorable to which Robin contributed or made possible – and he was a great enabler – were Costume in Scotland in the 18th Century, The Scottish Domestic Scene, Scots in Italy, A Virtuous and Noble Education, Van Dyck in Check Trousers, Scottish Empire, Women in Scotland 1660-1780, and John Michael Wright, the King’s Painter. The last of these marked his retiral in 1982.

The knowledge that Robin had built up of Scottish (and other) art in private collections became an essential ingredient in a vast project to photograph and catalogue the contents of these collections. The scheme, funded by the Frick Collection in New York, had been initiated by Sir Ellis Waterhouse during his brief tenure as director of the National Galleries of Scotland, but it was largely controlled by Robin. These forays into private collections gave play to his unique attributional skills and he played a major role in disseminating the information collected.

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Indeed, his willingness to share his discoveries with others was part of his character. In this, and other ways, he made an enormous contribution to the history of Scottish art. In the event, he never published a great deal, although he co-authored Scottish Costume 1550-1850 with Stuart Maxwell in 1958.

Compared with the present day, the Portrait Gallery was run on a shoestring – Robin and I shared a single telephone for many years!

However, during the 1970s, Robin was quietly able to take advantage of a loosening of the government purse and start to expand the staff. This would lead to two initiatives with long-term implications: the creation of the social history index; and a greater emphasis on photography.

The first of these became possible when he appointed the historian and biographer Rosalind Marshall to look after the gallery’s vast collection of reference material and many thousands of engravings and photographs of works of art.

Realising that this material contained a great trove of information about aspects of social history – furniture, costume, arms and food – Robin set off to the United States to see how American museums indexed such information. The index, virtually endless, and the photographic survey of private collections, have proved to be of enormous benefit to art and social historians as well as publishers seeking authentic illustrations. The second major initiative grew from the appointment of Sara Stevenson to take care of the Print Room, and would lead ultimately to the founding of the Scottish Photography Archive (later re-named the Scottish National Photography Collection).

In addition to portrait drawing and engravings, the Print Room contained quantities of original photographs stretching back to the very beginnings of this art form. Robin encouraged Stevenson to study this material, especially the hundreds of photographs by the pioneers, D O Hill and Robert Adamson. This resulted in a detailed catalogue of their work, published in 1981.

From this initial encouragement, Stevenson would go on to produce many comparable publications and become a world authority on the history of photography. She has remained in debt to Robin for all the help and encouragement that he gave her. Many others speak of that kind of generosity.

When he retired at the then statutory age of 60, in 1982, Robin eventually moved to Haddington. With typical modesty, he had by this time removed his entry from Who’s Who!

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I recall an affable lunch there as I grilled him in preparation for my History of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Later, with his usual enthusiasm and humour, he would regale me with the story of his stroke. In their different ways, both good memories of a good man.

He is survived by his daughter Chirria, her daughter, a great grand-daughter, and the son and daughter of his son Nigel, who predeceased him.