ART / The Clifford inheritance: Timothy Clifford may be forever tainted by the Three Graces fiasco, but the real test of his ability is the National Gallery of Scotland. Iain Gale pays it a visit in his occasional series on the permanent collections

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Edinburgh's tourists are intrigued. To the French, the building looks like a church - La Madeleine, perhaps. To the Germans it resembles a palace, maybe something by Schinkel. In fact, the National Gallery of Scotland is both these things and more. This squat Doric temple on Prince's Street could be a place of worship, a stately home, a gentlemen's club or a brothel. It also contains probably the most important art collection outside London.

The gallery as it exists today is the achievement of its recently infamous director, Timothy Clifford. When Clifford took over the gallery in 1984 it was a bleak tour de force of the worst in 1970s museology, with parquet flooring and brown, hessian-covered chairs. He transformed it using 'period' furnishings to create what some consider the best-displayed gallery in the country and others criticise as having the look and atmosphere of a fake Edwardian hotel. Clifford's style, at its most meretricious, has prompted a spate of re-hangs, the most recent (and least successful) being the Metropolitan in New York. Americans just love his cloth-hung walls and leather armchairs. It's not that Clifford needs to promote the pictures in his care by presentation. Even against its bleak early Eighties backdrop, when I knew it as an undergraduate, the collection was able to stand for itself. Clifford shows us what he wants us to believe an art gallery should be like.

His vision is evident from the moment you open the door, or rather, as soon as the door is opened for you by one of the neat warders in their frogged jackets and tartan trews. You won't find this tartan in any reference book. Clifford himself had a hand in its design and it's this repro style that his critics hate most. And there's a lot of it about.

Inside, the (inadequately signed) front stairs lead to the early Renaissance collections. The quality is immediately evident. To the right hang three Raphaels - the Bridgewater Madonna, the Holy Family with a Palm Tree and the Madonna della Passeggio. Opposite is Van der Goes' huge Trinity Altarpiece, set on a wooden plinth and turned every half-hour to display the inner panels. The works are well-displayed against cloth-hung walls of green silk which, with the central well open to the entrance hall below, give the room something of the feeling of a late 17th- century country house.

On the level below, the core of the gallery is organised in two halves and it is best to follow the pictures chronologically in a clockwise direction. Here, against the famous dark-red walls are masterpieces by Del Sarto, Titian, Bassano and others and, in room II, the magnificent late Titians of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, and Tintoretto's crepuscular depositon. The labels which accompany all these works are well written, with clear explanations about the artist and the specific work, its iconography and raison d'etre.

But scholarly explanations cannot compensate for what awaits the visitor in the Poussin Room. Here is the artist's important series of the seven sacraments, painted between 1644 and 1648 for his friend Paul Freart de Chantelou. It should be a moment of solemn beauty. But Clifford, always walking a tightrope of kitsch, here loses his balance. The floor is of black, white and brown marble, with, in the centre, a hexagonal pouffe of black horsehair. Scrutinising the sacraments of Pennance and Holy Eucharist, you notice the exact resemblance of the seating and floor in the pictures to those in the gallery. Looking up, you find an unlit lantern taken from the one in the Eucharist. It's Poussin in Sensurround, and it's too much. Particularly since these important paintings are also poorly lit (an exception to the museum's generally excellent lighting). Rather than showing off the works, the room itself becomes a dark little chapel; this may sound interesting in theory, in practice it is merely irritating.

From a room hung with three of the finest Van Dycks in the country, it is best to climb the faux- marbled stairs (again, not well signposted) to the later pictures (or if you're disabled ask to use the lift). The names of the gallery's patrons, inscribed on framed parchments on either side of the stairwell, remind you that, as well as being one of the most opulent in the country, this gallery is also one of the best funded.

Upstairs, the first room is devoted to France and Italy in the 18th century. Appropriately, it includes Allan Ramsay's exquisite portrait of his wife, painted in the French manner and emphasising the ties between Scotland and the continent, strengthened during this period. The pink slubbed silk walls might be right for Boucher but are perhaps a little effete for Ramsay's portrait of Rousseau or Greuze's Boy with Lesson Book. The labels, though, remain intelligent - telling, in the case of the Greuze, where and when the picture was executed and how it is related to a sculpture by Saly.

The chronological hang continues with classic examples of Crome, Gainsborough and Turner. The furniture here dates from the 1820s and it soon becomes evident that both wall- colouring and furnishings have been chosen to evoke the period of the paintings. Thus in room A6, devoted to an impressive holding of Impressionists, there are eau-de- Nil walls and Louis XV-style furniture. The green-hung room which mixes Boudin with Bonnington and Constable does not work so well. Why, with only one northern European painting of the time by the Dane Baerentzen, is it lined with 1840s German Biedermeir furniture? In general, though, despite the fact that critics have compared the impression given by these upper rooms with their pastel colours, fauteuils and fresh flowers to a fin de siecle brothel, the colour-coded rooms and are a useful visual aide- memoire for the layman.

It is something of a shock to descend the stairs to the red-hung vastness of the great rooms. The vista through the four galleries on the west side of the building makes one suspect that Clifford might well have a penchant for old railway hotels. It's hard to resist the impulse of tipping the warders. But Clifford has not hung the pictures en masse, as they would have been when the gallery opened in 1859, but, with a few irritating exceptions (not least the Turner of Campo Vaccino), on the line at reasonable intervals.

The lighting, too, is given great consideration, with a combination of the natural and the artificial. The walls are hung with examples of the finest in British 18th- and 19th-century painting, and in the centre of room XII Lorenzo Bartolini's 1821 sculpture of the Campbell sisters en deshabille provides a flirtatious echo of another sculpture of the same era, close to Clifford's heart.

The overall effect Clifford has created is of a sophisticated stage set waiting for something to happen. A mise en scene in which the paintings are props for characters who wear tartan trews and whose only line is 'the gents is down the stairs' (incidentally the gents are the best in Edinburgh). The gallery has been moved from one extreme to another, from 1970s brutalism to the decorative extremes of 'period' style. It's no coincidence that Clifford's wife was a close friend of that great artificer, Laura Ashley. Clifford's gallery and its collection is a gem in the crown of British art, but in style it is as ersatz as his warders' trousers.

(Photographs omitted)