Queen’s Gallery: Scottish Artists


The broadcaster Kirsty Wark, the host of the BBC’s Edinburgh Nights, took time out from the gathering festival madness this week  to introduce the Queen’s Gallery’s new show, Scottish Artists 1750-1900, From Caledonia to the Continent, at an opening preview.

“What we have been hearing about,  that this is the first exhibition of Scottish art in the Royal Collection, is a fantastic idea and long over due,” she said.

Since it opened in 2002 the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood Palace has quietly delivered some of the finest work to Edinburgh in exhibitions from the Royal art collection, from Leonardo da Vinci to Tudor style.   It has been an important addition to the city’s art scene with greater impact than in crowded London.

But until now it has never devoted a show to Scottish artists.    “This exhibition is a celebration of Scottish artistic identity and reflects the long-standing association between Scottish artists and the Monarchy,” Prince Charles, whose Scottish title is the Duke of Rothesay,  writes in a foreword to the excellent catalogue.   “It charts the development of a uniquely Scottish school of art, with its roots in the Edinburgh enlightenment.”

The Royal Family has clearly been emphasising its commitment to Scotland through the referendum campaign and the Scottish National Party’s sweeping election wins that followed,  and it is now deploying the power of art.  The result is that the Queen’s Gallery is more Scottish this year than any of the big name shows – David Bailey, MC Escher, Lichtenstein –  at the National Galleries of Scotland.

The densely hung rooms include more than 80 works of art acquired by monarchs from George III to the Queen, by Scotland’s greatest names from Allan Ramsay to Sir David Wilkie, the orientalist David Roberts, and the Glasgow Boys.

Highlights include the Fife-born Wilkie’s The Penny Wedding, 1818, and Blind-Man’s-Buff, 1812, hung together from the first time.   Wark highlighted the telling details, from the clay pipe on the floor of the wedding feast to the body lying in the foreground of The Defence of Saragossa, another of the 17 Wilkie works on show.

She also used the subject of the Penny Wedding – where poor villagers  traditionally gave a penny, to pay for the celebration, and something over for the bride and groom – to gently tease  her well-connected audience over their many poor relations.

Clock-making and the picturesque Fife coast fishing village of Pittenweem don’t immediately spring to mind together.   So  it was startling to encounter a giant pedestal clock, made in Pittenweem, in a commanding position in the exhibition.

Queen's Gallery, Scottish Artists

Pedestal Clock, by John Smith, of Pittenweem

An automaton, a  “moving mechanical device”,  and musical clock, two centuries old, it played “God save the King”, among several other tunes.  From an art historical point of view, its beautiful painted scenes are attributed to the Edinburgh landscape artist Alexander Nasmyth, who began his career as a coach painter.

Wark  mentioned the other stand-outs in the show: the towering  18th Century portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte and their sons by Allan Ramsay, which greet visitors dramatically on the stairs and can also be admired from the balcony.   The picture of George III, who appointed Ramsay the first Scottish “Principal Painter in Ordinary”, was  copied 150 times, the most of any royal portrait.

Ramsay, Wark noted, faced “a lot of feeling in London, that there was something anti-Scottish about it, that people felt that [Joshua] Reynolds should be George III’s painter, but in the end George himself said no I want Allan Ramsay. ”  `King George refused to sit for a Reynolds portrait.

But she celebrated the fact that Ramsay had his studio in London’s Soho Square, while Wilkie also lived abroad and in London, . “I think what’s great about this is that Scottish artists were part of this huge European movement.:

The Ramsay works include his wonderful picture of the Prince William as a child in 1767, once attributed to Zoffany.  While Wilkie followed Ramsay as a painter to the king, the exhibition runs to the more surprising showing of  sketches by Glasgow Boys artists, presented in an album of the Glasgow Art Club to the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1888.

The Royal Collection hadn’t highlighted the sketches in their publicity  because they are small scale and shown in a table cabinet, but they were getting a lot of attention on the night, including pieces like Sir James Guthrie’s In the Orchard.

Sir James Guthrie Royal Collection Queen's Gallery

In the Orchard, Sir James Guthrie

Little is known of the Pittenweem clock’s maker John Smith, except from a 1775 advertisement that he was “bred in the trade and had never been out of the country”.    There was a strong tradition of clock-making in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, but little known of it in the East Neuk of Fife.

Smith travelled to London, hoping to sell it to George III, with a price tag of £900; he failed, but it was later given to the Royal Family by the citizens of Glasgow.

The clock’s an oddity; but anyone interested in the traditions of Scottish art will gravitate to the other feasts on offer.

“Scottish artists as a group have never been shown as an exhibition before,” said curator Victoria Clarke.   “There are a number of well-known paintings here that have been shown but not together. Actually this is quite a strong collection, quite a cohesive collection.”

While several routinely hang on public display in the Royal palaces, this work, by the Aberdonian John Phillip, nicknamed Spanish Phillip, has never been shown.   On his death Queen Victoria called him “our greatest painter”.

John Phillip artist Royal Collection

John Phillip, El Paseo, 1854, Royal Collection

John Ruskin begged to differ, stating on seeing it that Mr Phillips work “has become vulgar”.  Modern tastes may have changed away from Victorian story painting, but it’s still potent stuff, and  Queen Victoria bought it for Prince Albert for Christmas in 1854.   She could be less kind to other painters who got on her wrong side, as the catalogue, cleverly researched and written, relates.

The Scottish show will go on to a London showing in March 2015.   It will be interesting to see how audiences for  this Scottish line-up compare to, say,  last year’s hugely popular show In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion.   It is also notably different, of course, to the populist tenor of this summer’s line up at the National Galleries of Scotland, such as David Bailey on the Mound.

While there’s a heavy presence of the Scottish artists that Victoria and Albert collected, Sir Edwin Landseer’s highland panoramas (and dead stag scenes)  are not in the frame, as he was English.  Instead there are lovely landscapes by the lesser known James Giles.  It was Giles’ views of Balmoral and its surroundings that persuaded Victoria  and Albert to take a lease on the estate before actually seeing it.

James Giles Royal Collection Queen's Gallery

James Giles, A View of Balmoral, 1848.

Royalty aside, there’s plenty for tourists, from Joseph Farquharson’s flock of sheep,  to pipers, bens, glens, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Nasmyth’s familiar View of the High Street Edinburgh and Lawnmarket.

Alexander Nasmyth's View of the High Street Edinburgh and the Lawnmarket

Alexander Nasmyth’s View of the High Street Edinburgh and the Lawnmarket


Most of the Royal Collection’s works by David Roberts, the former theatrical scene painter born into poverty in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, are on show.   They include A View of Cairo, from 1840, an early milestone of Orientalist paintings of the Middle East.  His volumes of lithographs were dedicated to Queen Victoria.

A personal favourite among the Wilkie works was his painterly Queen Adelaide with Princes Victoria and Members of her Family;  the exhibits also include an oil sketch by him of Queen Victoria, the first image of her as reigning monarch, four months after her accession to the throne, aged 18.