TEN years ago, by way of a leaving present from his post as Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford commissioned from himself a book which formed the basis of a remarkable exhibition. Choice, sub-titled ‘Twenty-One Years of Collecting for Scotland’, was an unashamed celebration of Clifford’s tenure in charge of the nation’s art collections. In particular, it focussed on works acquired during that period, including Sandro Botticelli’s deeply affecting Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child at a cost of $26 million and Antonio Canova’s sublime sculpture The Three Graces, which the NGS prevented from going abroad by sharing its acquisition with the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Those were heady days on The Mound. Clifford, a peacock among the pigeons of public service, was the kind of man who could always be relied upon to create news, wittingly or otherwise. His accent was such that he made the Royal family’s sound common and, as he toured the National Gallery, its walls recently painted bordello-red, he exuded orgiastic delight in the many treasures in his keeping. In his valedictory essay in Choice, Clifford was no less ebullient, revealing in teasing detail how he operated and the various successes in which he had played a not insignificant role. His, he related, was a family immersed in art. His father, Derek, was a poet, a painter and a collector. Clifford himself won art prizes at school and attended the Courtauld Institute where he studied History of Fine Art. Thereafter he sought employment in galleries, becoming, at 32, director of Manchester City Art Galleries. In 1984, he took over the helm of the National Galleries of Scotland.
It was just five years after the débâcle of the rigged first devolution referendum and not long after his arrival Clifford did not endear himself to the natives when he described Scottish art as ‘inferior’. The remark was typical of him – rarely did he have his foot out of his mouth – and upset many in the northern art world. In an editorial in the Scotsman, then an influential organ, there was a call for him to be deported forthwith. Unsurprisingly, this injunction was ignored and Clifford went on to become one of the National Galleries’ most successful and prominent champions. As he indicated in Choice, it was never easy for a Scottish gallery to compete with those in London and elsewhere. The annual purchasing budget was small – never much more than £1 million – and the art market was increasingly inflated, with prices reaching stratospheric levels. In 1988, for example, a Van Gogh painting of a bowl of sunflowers changed hands for $74.5 million.
Clifford was in his element when wheeling and dealing. Always confident in his own expertise and judgement, his view was that if ‘a bona fide dealer makes a mistake in attribution and I want to acquire it for my gallery, I do not have to point out his error’. He was also assiduous in identifying potential donors – hearse-chasing is part of the job description – and courting and charming wealthy and discriminating collectors. The NGS, as he indicated, are full of paintings on long-term loan which may become part of the permanent collection. Others, however, are liable to be sold should necessity arise. It is a fact of gallery life. The collection of almost every public gallery grows like Topsy, through a combination of gifts, loans, and purchases. In Clifford’s era, two of the most significant benefactors were the artist, historian and poet, Sir Roland Penrose, and the collector, Gabrielle Keiller, who in part owed her fortune to marmalade. Thanks to Keiller, the Gallery of Modern Art (one of the NGS’s two sister galleries, the other being the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland) was enhanced with works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte.
What strikes one now browsing through Choice is the breadth, depth and quality of the work accumulated from 1963 to 1984, ranging from the head of a bearded man sculpted at a time when the Romans were throwing Christians to the lions (‘accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estate of the 9th Baron Kinnaird’) to a slicer which could be used for dissecting giant onions made by Mona Hatoum. Both contribute to the palimpsest that are the collections in the NGS. Their well-being is now in the hands of Sir John Leighton, who returned to Edinburgh, at whose university he had studied and taught, via the National Gallery in London and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Since his appointment as Director-General, he has made a number of mouth-watering acquisitions including Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and overseen several outstanding exhibitions. The economic and political climate he inhabits is very different from that of his predecessor. One notable aspect of this is the influx of visitors the galleries welcome each year, which is around 2,000,000, with countless cultural tourists now flocking to Edinburgh from the Middle and Far East.
Meanwhile, ever more works have been added to the collection. Undoubtedly, the biggest beneficiary has been the Gallery of Modern Art which in 2008 took possession of the eclectic collection of the gallery owners, Anthony and Anne D’Offay, which is housed in what are known as ARTIST ROOMS. By any standards, the D’Offays’ gift, which comprised around 1,200 works by thirty-two artists, including Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long and Bill Viola, was generous. ‘At a stroke,’ writes Leighton in the introduction to his 100 Masterpieces, ‘the ARTIST ROOMS donation transformed the representation of contemporary art in Britain and created what is in effect a new kind of national collection. From the outset it was always envisaged that ARTIST ROOMS would be widely shared with museums and galleries across the United Kingdom’. Another development in Leighton’s era has been the National Collection of Photography, which comprises around 40,000 items. What there is not, however, is a Scottish National Photography Centre which a decade or so ago was mooted to be based at the Old Royal High School in the lea of Calton Hall. That inspired idea, alas, came to nought, who knows why, and the building seems fated to become yet another hotel.
In 100 Masterpieces, which includes work from across the NGS, Leighton makes no attempt to explain his selection. Is it meant to be representative or personal? One must assume a bit of both. What is clear, however, is that within little more than a square Edinburgh mile there is work to be seen of extraordinary beauty and accomplishment. Leighton’s choice opens with Bernardo Daddi’s gorgeous fourteenth-century Florentine triptych, probably produced to a patron’s specification, and closes with Martin Creed’s installation, Everything Is Going To Be Alright, which ‘consists of an entirely empty gallery space that is either illuminated or thrown into darkness at five-second intervals’. What a Medici prince or Strozzi banker would have made of the latter would be interesting to learn. Proportionately, Leighton gives more space to modern artists than Old Masters, which may be a reflection of his taste. In that he surely differs from his immediate predecessor. He writes lucidly and informatively and refrains from over-interpretation. Referring to Christian Hook’s ‘portrait’ of Alan Cumming, he writes: ‘Hook’s portrait was painted in New York while the actor was performing in a leading role in a Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. Cumming is shown semi-naked, lying on a stage in front of a row of footlights, with a top hat nearby to evoke his current role. The kilt draped around his neck is in the tartan of the “Yes” campaign which Cumming supported during the referendum on Scottish independence held in 2014. The empty honey jar is a reference to the name of a much-loved and recently deceased pet dog.’
Much of the work chosen will be familiar to art lovers but for anyone to whom it is new it must be a revelation. Portraiture is particularly well represented, testimony to the contribution of successive keepers of the National Portrait Gallery. On the cover is John Singer Sargent’s ‘dazzling and unforgettable’ painting of Lady Agnew of Locknaw, painted in 1892 when the sitter was recovering from a severe bout of flu (‘which may account for her slightly ghostly pallor’). She doesn’t look too poorly to me. Other wonderful portraits include examples by Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Ken Currie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Angela Palmer and John Byrne. Inferior Scottish art may have been when compared, say, to the Italian renaissance but there has been much to cheer since and not just because of chauvinism. And, of course, there is Henry Raeburn, whose portraits of the great and good and not so good defined his age as did Scott’s novels and Burns’s poetry. At No. 23 is his masterpiece, our Mona Lisa, Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, which it was impertinently claimed was not painted by Raeburn but by a French artist who was briefly resident in Scotland. Clearly, John Leighton is not of that persuasion. ‘It is a remarkable painting,’ he concludes, ‘and, unless some as yet undiscovered document or evidence comes to light to prove otherwise, the skating minister’s position as an icon of Scottish art seems secure.’ Justice has at last been served.
100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland
National Galleries of Scotland, £35, ISBN: 978-1906270018, PP240