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

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