Painted into a corner

The new National Gallery of Scottish Art in Glasgow risks missing the big picture by opting for the parochial.

Iain Gale
Sunday 08 September 1996 23:02

In Glasgow's George Square, something very strange is happening. On the site of the old Post Office building, passers-by have reported seeing a ghostly image: a huge, pseudo-classical monolith, shimmering in the evening light, which every day seems to become just a little more tangible. The National Gallery of Scottish Art is with us. Ever since St Andrew's Day 1993, when a report landed on my desk outlining plans for a new gallery in which to display Scotland's national collection of Scottish art, the spectre has haunted my mind. In recent weeks, fresh glossy pamphlets have arrived, bearing solid evidence for the existence of this bizarre museological phenomenon. A month ago, a new logo appeared, followed, only last week, by a 30-page brochure detailing the structure and layout of the gallery and offering "a tour of the building". On the same day we were told of the bulk "purchase" by Timothy Clifford, flamboyant director of the National Galleries of Scotland (assisted by some pounds 600,000 of lottery money), of 57 huge illustrations to Robbie Burns by the painter Alexander Goudie, all destined to hang in the "new National Gallery of Scottish Art in Glasgow". Overnight, GoSA, as I have come to think of it, very nearly materialised before our eyes.

Thankfully, though, GoSA is not yet a reality and, despite what you might suppose, there is still time to prevent it becoming so. In two weeks' time, on 26 September, a team from the Heritage Lottery Fund will travel to Edinburgh to discuss the possible funding of the new gallery. Before their final decision is announced, however, questions should be raised regarding the disposal of public funds, about the way the director of the National Galleries of Scotland has managed his campaign, and not least about the cultural implications of the new gallery.

The row that has erupted over the new museum has polarised the Scottish art world. Hailed by its supporters as an "important national tourist attraction", it has been attacked by leading artists, critics and academics for ghettoising what is essentially an international school of art. The facts are these. The National Galleries of Scotland own some 2,000 works by Scottish artists or of Scottish subjects. Of 500 Scottish paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland, only some 170 are ever on view. For the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, equivalent figures are 340 and 50. Certainly, it would be good to have access to more of the Scottish collection. Clifford's original solution, voiced in 1993, was to separate the Scots from the rest. His initial attempts, however, to absorb the Scottish National Portrait Gallery into his scheme met with such a barrage of protest, notably from Ludovic Kennedy, that he was forced to retreat. His latest plan - to construct a gallery of Scottish art within Glasgow's old GPO building - is merely a toned-down version of the original, and it now appears that Clifford intends to remove a possible 700 of the nation's pictures from Edinburgh to Glasgow.

In his grand scheme, Clifford would keep a few Scottish works (in his eyes, probably the best) at the National Gallery in Edinburgh and consign the bulk to Glasgow. For his model he appears to have taken the division of treasures between the Tate and National galleries in London: the National is home to an international collection containing a few masterpieces of British art, the Tate to the British Collection. It's a poor example to follow, for it exists only as the legacy of the haphazard way in which the two collections have developed over the past 150 years. In truth, Britain's entire national collection needs to be rationalised and reorganised.

Clifford's model should not be the Tate but the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, in which a largely French collection is placed in a truly international context. This is the treatment that Scottish painters of international status, such as Ramsay, Wilkie, McTaggart and Fergusson demand, and there is no evidence to suppose that such an approach would be any less popular with the general public than a uniquely Scottish gallery.

In the face of earlier criticism, we are now reassured that, in the new gallery, "English, European and American paintings will help to place Scottish art in its wider context". But this woolly promise recalls similar assurances by the Tate St Ives, whose current comparative show of the work of Mark Rothko consists of just three paintings. Evidence of such international contextualisation is also hard to find on the new ground- plan. Where it does occur, it seems incongruous. What, for example, is Edwin Church's Niagara Falls doing next to the Etty triptych of Judith and Holofernes and Wilkie's Discovery of the Body of Tipoo Sahib. Clearly, no consideration has been given to the all-important dialogue between related paintings. Similarly, in the one room devoted to Wilkie and Geddes, our worst fears are realised in the parochialisation of a leading European painter. David Wilkie must be seen in reasonably close proximity to both Rembrandt and Courbet and this, while currently easily achieved in the National Gallery, would be quite impossible here. It does appear that some effort is being made with an adjacent hang of the Hague School painters with the Glasgow Boys. But why should there be separate galleries devoted to European and American painting from 1870 to 1914?

Why, for that matter, should the collection take as its starting-point 1790? What is the history of Scottish art without Ramsay, Runciman and Norie and Aikman, quite apart from the important Scottish Renaissance schools of the 1600s? Such exclusions make a nonsense of the declared aim to present "an adequate survey of Scottish painting in its historical development". The reason is, of course, not academic but merely that most early Scottish painting is portraiture and, deprived of the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Clifford has few works at his disposal painted before 1790. What we are left with is a gallery of 19th- and 20th-century Scottish art, and, thanks to a quirky conceit, part of the National Philatelic Collection.

So what is Clifford up to? A cynic might suppose that, having failed in his bids to advance his career at the National Gallery in London or the V&A, he is now trying to expand sideways, by enlarging his Scottish domain. But there are other, more tangible reasons. Apart from ridding his Edinburgh gallery of the pictures he once termed a "lesser school", these are mainly economic. Some of the space freed up in the National Gallery in Edinburgh will be used for a cafe, new WCs and a bigger shop - "all of which the public expect". At the same time, the Glasgow gallery will be "a venue for all kinds of cultural occasions", with "large areas ... available for use out of normal working hours". In other words, it will be a place for corporate entertainment and parties. The expected revenue generated on site by a projected 814,000 visitors a year is pounds 2.4m.

Clearly, Clifford wants to make money, but how will he spend it? Despite his transparently populist gesture of spending a disproportionate amount of money on Goudie's 57 varieties, it will probably not be upon Scottish pictures. It's true that he recently admitted that Scottish painting did contain a few "twinklingly exciting moments", but it's my bet that Scottish art will be sidelined in favour of the likes of Guercino and Canova.

And the cost of this cultural re-alignment? In 1995 we were told the new gallery would cost pounds 30m; by March that had become pounds 40m. Currently the price stands at pounds 49.7m. The use of Lottery and Millennium money to purchase works of art or improve our cultural awareness is an admirable aim, but surely the public should have a say in how its money is spent and which projects are advanced?

The popularity of the new gallery is hard to gauge. "Following extensive public consultation," the brochures declare, "the project has the enthusiastic support of most of the general public who have indicated an interest." This is nothing but fudge. Further public discussion is needed. Why not a referendum?

Clifford and his camp declare that their gallery will "demonstrate clearly the cultural confidence of Scotland in its own distinctive heritage". What a giveaway that phrase is. A gallery devoted solely to Scottish art becomes no more than a chronicle of Scottish history; the works themselves - as Clifford's purchase of the 57 Goudies suggests - no better than illustrations. The wider implication is that Scotland's art, like the rest of its culture, is best appreciated for its quaint and quirky charm. Were you to hang these paintings in the tartan curiosity shops that line Edinburgh's Royal Mile, you could not be more certain of hammering another nail into the coffin of "theme park Scotland".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments