Colin Thompson

Modernising director of the National Galleries of Scotland


Colin Edward Thompson, arts administrator: born Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 2 November 1919; Lecturer, Bath Academy of Art, Corsham 1948-54, Senior Adviser, Research Centre in Art Education 1962-65; Assistant Keeper, National Galleries of Scotland 1954-67, Keeper 1967-77, Director 1977-84; Member, Scottish Arts Council 1976-83; FRSE 1978; member, Edinburgh Festival Council 1979-82; CBE 1983; Chairman, Scottish Museums Council 1984-87; married 1950 Jean O'Connell (one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 5 October 2007.

When Colin Thompson retired in October 1984 from directing the National Galleries of Scotland, he had been in the post for nearly seven years. It would be wrong to construe from this relatively short spell that he had made little impact on their development, for Thompson had joined the staff 30 years earlier, beginning his gallery career in 1954, as an assistant keeper, and then being promoted to the keepership of the National Gallery building in 1967.

The National Galleries then consisted of the National Gallery on the Mound (to be imagined without any underground extension), the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street (a building then shared with the National Museum of Antiquities), and the modest little National Gallery of Modern Art at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanical Gardens (which opened in August 1960).

The federation of galleries was small in size – indeed, infinitely smaller than its rival at Kelvingrove, Glasgow, and on an even smaller scale than England's regional galleries in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. The administrative section was then provided by secondment from the Scottish Civil Service, buildings and maintenance were the province of the Property Services Agency (and its predecessor, the Office of Works), furniture and equipment were provided by Crown Suppliers, while publications were exclusively provided by Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

The staff was tiny, but what Scotland may have lacked in buildings, staff or infrastructure, it made up for in its Old Master collections. Thompson greatly benefited from the loan arranged by the then director, Sir Ellis Waterhouse, in 1945/46 of 26 superb Old Master paintings, originally from the Orléans collection and, at that time, the property of the Earl of Ellesmere (subsequently the Duke of Sutherland). The group was the nucleus of Philippe Egalité's collection, and comprised, among other masterpieces, three Raphaels, five Titians, eight Poussins, two Rembrandts and works by Lotto, Tintoretto, Hobbema, Van Dyck, Steen, and Dou.

It was this unrivalled private collection, and the consistent policy of buying only rarely and when affordable the greatest works of art available, which consolidated the claim of the National Galleries of Scotland to have the finest holding of paintings in Great Britain outside London.

The éminence grise behind so many of these acquisitions, and many of the distinguished long-term loans, was the 28th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. For much of Thompson's time at the Gallery, Lord Crawford was Chairman of the Board. He was a remarkable and formidable figure, who had inherited a magnificent private collection and combined this with considerable powers of connoisseurship. He had been chairman of the National Gallery, London, the Royal Fine Art Commission and the National Art Collections Fund, and served as a trustee of both the Tate and the British Museum.

Thompson had aspired to the directorship when Hugh Scrutton was appointed, but his candidature had not found favour with Lord Crawford. Thompson did not see eye to eye with Scrutton, who had previously proved an outstanding director of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and so, as Keeper, was the originator, or party to originating, a new scheme. This involved a collegiate structure by which individual gallery keepers each had their own allocations for purchases, largely arranged their own affairs under sub-committees of trustees; a system which had the desired effect of undermining the director (who was also the accounting officer) and thus crippled Scrutton's scope for major initiatives and expansions. With Scrutton's retiral in 1977, the directorship became available again and Thompson was successful.

Thompson was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1919, and was educated at Sedbergh School in Cumbria. He went up to Cambridge and read, for the first part of his tripos, Modern Language at King's College. He then joined the Military Police in 1940, before transferring to the Foreign Office (Intelligence) at Bletchley Park. After the war, he returned to complete his Languages degree at Cambridge, and then went on, for a short time, to Chelsea School of Art.

From 1945 until 1954, he taught drawing, and latterly art history, at the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, Wiltshire. He therefore followed in the tradition of many of the earlier keepers at Edinburgh, like J.L. Caw and Stanley Cursiter, of having considerable practical experience as an artist.

Thompson was responsible for overseeing the first underground extension, or "New Wing", to the Mound Building in 1976-78, where is now displayed the bulk of the Scottish School, pre-1900. These excavations also provided valuable accommodation for offices, a library and picture store. Built by PSA, it earned him a Civic Trust award and the award of the Concrete Society in 1979. He next closed the old Gallery of Modern Art at Inverleith House and moved to the fine, much larger, premises at the former John Watson's School on Belford Road in August 1984. Under the then Keeper, Douglas Hall, the Gallery of Modern Art flourished, bought well and mounted some notable exhibitions. Thompson then set about the process of modernising and redisplaying the interior of the National Portrait Gallery, a gothic revival building with which he was not in sympathy.

Colin Thompson and his staff bought a series of remarkable Old Master paintings, including works by Sarto (1967), Seurat (1977), Verrocchio (1975), Moroni (1977), Reni (1979), Hobbema and Saenredam (1982), culminating with pictures by Lotto, Tintoretto, Steen and Dou from the Sutherland collection in 1983/84.

Mercifully, the scheme for modernising the precinct at the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery, endorsed by Thompson, never was fully realised, otherwise the Playfair project, providing a lecture theatre, education suite, IT gallery, restaurant and shop could never have been built. Thompson, however, deserves credit for setting up the Patrons of the National Galleries and also the Scottish Photography Archive, which has now blossomed into the Scottish National Collection of Photography.

When Thompson retired from the National Galleries, he undertook various other tasks, including chairing the Scottish Museums Council (1984-87), the Board of Governors of the Edinburgh College of Art (1989-91) and the Scottish Mining Museum Trust (1992-97). He was appointed CBE (1983) and elected FRSE (1978).

Colin Thompson was energetic, determined, highly articulate and, in very many ways, served tirelessly the arts and arts administration in Scotland.

Timothy Clifford

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home