Scotsman 200: Space for art to flourish

When the Scottish National Portrait Gallery opened on Queen Street, Edinburgh, in 1898, it was partly thanks to this newspaper that such an impressive collection of art could be admired by interested members of the public.

MONDAY, 15 JULY, 1889

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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To-Day, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which has been erected in Queen Street, Edinburgh, is to be formally opened by the Secretary for Scotland, the Marquis of Lothian. The history of the building affords an excellent illustration of two things –first, the neglect by the Government of Scottish art, of which Scotland has a right to complain; and, secondly, the happy fact that there are Scotsmen to be found ready to redeem, by well-disposed munificence, such official shortcomings.

The new Gallery has been erected at the cost of a private anonymous donor, whose contribution towards it must amount, to little less than £50,000.

The style of architecture adopted is the secular Gothic of the Fourteenth Century, and when the whole façade, with its flanking towers and spires, and binding ornamental parapet is completed, the building will be recognised as a notable and interesting addiction to the architecture of the city.

The architect in selecting this particular style was guided by considerations alike of utility and beauty – this phase of the Gothic readily lending itself to the providing of sufficient window openings for such of the galleries as required to be lighted from the side.

On Saturday the representatives of the Scottish Press had an opportunity of inspecting the Portrait Gallery, and of noting the collection of portraits which has been got together in the double gallery on the first floor. In its new home the Portrait Gallery opens under the most promising anspices.

One was very much pleased with the interesting and picturesque character of the gallery; and the excellent manner in which the portraits in various mediums have been displayed.

Oak screens running out at right angles from the windows, both on the north and south sides, have been introduced with good effect; at the base of the piers of the arches there are glass cases with medallions and works of art of a similar description, and at various points in the rooms busts on pedestals of a chocolate colour are happily disposed.

The walls of the gallery, it will be noted, are in a green grey tint, and the beams of the roof in a soft flat red. A standpoint from which an excellent view of the gallery may be obtained is at the north-east corner-the straight line of vision through the central archway carrying the eye to Raeburn’s splendid picture of the youthful Professor John Wilson standing by the side of his brown horse.

The catalogue prepared by Mr John M. Grey, the curator of the Gallery, shows that already that the board are the possessors of 324 portraits of various kinds, and that they are the custodians of 71 others which have been granted to them on loan.

A number of these are exhibited in the new gallery for the first time, the whole forming and interesting collection of men and women who have been distinguished in some way in connection with the Government, law, literature, or art of the country. The loan portraits are for the most part hung in the Northern half of the Gallery, others are on the screens and walls of the southern room.

Among the more noticeable acquisitions to the Gallery by purchase of gift is the portrait of the beautiful Queen Caroline (13), the consort of George II, by Jacopo Amigoni, a Venetian artist, who resided in this country for ten years from 1729; as also a fine full length by Shackleton of the second George himself, in magnificent coronation robes which are admirably painted. Shackleton was the principle Court painter of the time, and his portrait gives one a very favourable impression of this member of the Guelph Monarchy.

His son, George III, also in gorgeous coronation robes, is likewise here at full length – the artist being Allan Ramsay, of whose courtly art it is a distinguished example. The handsome youthful figure is well set off by the cloth of Gold robes and pale blue ermine trimmed mantle – the draperies being a marvel of careful painting. Queen Charlotte, the consort of George III-by the same artist – has also been acquired, the Queen being, like her husband, attired in coronation dress.

Both Portraits were formerly at Osmaston Hall, Derby. Contiguous to it is a portrait by Samuel Lane of the unfortunate Queen Caroline, the wife of George IV, whose portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence is also on the same wall.

Many of the busts were acquired at recent sales, but notice of them and of a number of interesting pen and other drawings which are disposed in frames under the windows, and of the collection of medallions by Tassie and Henning, and casts of Scottish portrait medals, is reserved. A set of Wedgwood medallions has been presented to the Gallery by Messrs T. Wedgwood & Sons.


Peploe paintings

Peploe Exhibition at the National Gallery, Edinburgh

For the student of art the Peploe exhibition in the National Gallery offers a fascinating opportunity of tracing the development of the artist’s technique over a period of 30 years; and it should provide the plain man with an hour’s visual pleasure, specially welcome while winter still has the countryside in its grey grip.

Peploe was essentially a colourist, and the walls of the two rooms housing the exhibition are aglow. Pictures of roses and tulips alternate with rich, warm landscapes of the South of France and Iona, and it is possible to sympathise with the enthusiastic admirer, mentioned in the catalogue, who declared he would like to sup the paintings. A closer analysis of the canvasses, however, reveals just how deeply Peploe was concerned with form, and one readily accepts the statement that the arrangement of a group might occupy his attention for days, or even weeks.

The pictures have been most skilfully selected and arranged by Mr Stanley Cursiter. Peploe’s work, while never losing certain basic characteristics, underwent considerable changes, and the canvasses are so arranged as to illustrate these various phases. The 63 pictures include the last the artist painted from nature (1934), and no significant aspect of Peploe’s work is unrepresented.


Public art in public places

Two traditional alfresco shows

By Sydney Goodsir Smith

Certainly of all the art exhibitions of this Festival, those with the largest turnover (or turnout) of spectators must be those most exposed to weather and idle passers-by. I speak of the two by now traditional shows that are hung on the railings of Castle Terrace, open to wind and rain, and those hung on “The Scotsman” Steps.

On the Castle Terrace railings are large and telling decorations by two young painters, Messrs Bellany and Moffat. These two are very much of a “school” (if one can use such a term about only two people), as say, Van Gogh and Gauguin were at one period, or Peploe and Fergusson or Cadell at another.

To the popular fashion of abstract splurging about in the void they oppose the classical discipline of the bounding line of Fernand Léger. Their work is undoubtedly impressive. This is public art, designed to be seen in public places, and I should like to see public commissions coming their way some day.

FRIDAY, 5 JUNE, 2009

Art review: Martin Boyce

By Moira Jeffrey

Martin Boyce’s exhibition No Reflections is one of the few places in Venice you can get away from the water. Cross the stone bridge over a shimmering canal, climb up the whitewashed stairs of Palazzo Pisani, step across the threshold and you’ve entered a room that feels more like an abandoned and long-dried up swimming pool than a grand drawing room.

You walk across 16 vast stepping stones, their surfaces scuffed and tired. Wax paper leaves drift across the terrazzo floor. Through an open door you glimpse the wooden slats of what might be a screen but turns out to be a sculpture of an overturned bench. Up here you feel high and dry.

Boyce, who lives in Glasgow, is representing Scotland in just one of the vast network of activities that make up the Venice Biennale, a curious hybrid between a curated exhibition and a cultural Olympiad based around nation states.

It’s an institution that is now more than a century old. This year there are 77 national presentations across the city and this is the fourth time in recent years that Scotland has had a presence alongside the British Pavilion which sits in neoclassical splendour in the Giardini, the park that is home to much of the Biennale activity.

Curated by the team at Dundee Contemporary Arts, this show is the first time that Scotland has supported a solo presentation and it has paid off handsomely: giving Boyce seven rooms and a unique chance to stretch his wings.

Each room is spare and simple, containing just a handful of very striking sculptures, but the sequence adds up to a substantial body of work, a kind of faded dreamscape that resembles in turn a drained pool, an abandoned garden or park, and an empty aviary.

There are vast rusting tables, overturned litter bins, each carefully crafted to slick modernist designs by the artist. But these forms, once both glamorous and utilitarian, are now unnerving.

You’re tempted to think of the late JG Ballard, whose bleak work was filled with emptied pools and failed utopias, but it doesn’t have quite that amplified sense of apocalypse, more an end-of-season melancholy, a sense of a place or moment that has lost its moorings.

Even on the opening night, as the art crowd descended on the Palazzo in hordes, the evening sun through the windows struck the rooms with a sorrowful rather than celebratory air.

Within the show, Boyce, whose art often quotes from the history of design, has taken a single motif and worked it up into a whole family of forms.

It’s hard in Venice not to be seduced by the sheer beauty of the place and hard not to compete with its riches, the ornate damask and gilt. It’s a classic mistake for exhibitors, who can never outdo their setting. Boyce’s show is muscular and supremely confident, its heavy and rusting materials hard-edged and brutal. It’s a classic example of restraint being a form of strength.

The full text from these edited extracts can be found at The Scotsman Digital Archive.