Riots, sieges and executions – Scotland’s capital city, so often at the very heart of Scottish affairs, has had a turbulent and eventful history. Having received its original charter from King David I in the mid-twelfth century, at first Edinburgh was administered by burgesses (freemen) who enjoyed the right of being merchants or craftsmen.
As the town grew in size, a council was constituted to oversee the running of the city and, having gone through various incarnations, continues to do so. It is hardly surprising then that a large topographical and civic collection forms the backbone of the City’s art collection. William Delacour’s panoramic View of Edinburgh from 1759 is one the earliest large-scale paintings of the city, and depicts a view of the Old Town which had not changed significantly since medieval times.
Edinburgh was at the forefront of the Scottish Enlightenment, and no artist so successfully captured the city during this period as Alexander Nasmyth. His magnificent The Port of Leith from 1824 is one of the highlights of the Collection. Significant events such as royal visits are well documented, as is the rise of the Georgian New Town and the subsequent expansion of the City.
Throughout the ages, it has been customary practice that each Lord Provost (the Scottish equivalent of a Mayor) has their portrait painted upon demitting office. This collection of portraits is comprised of works by many of the major artists of their generations, including Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn and, more recently, David Abercrombie Donaldson and Dame Elizabeth V. Blackadder.
In 1964, the City was given over 300 paintings by the Scottish Modern Arts Association. Founded in 1907, the SMAA was the first society established in Scotland for the purpose of creating a collection of modern art for the benefit of the nation. The Association received money from membership fees and the pictures were bought by committee. Among early acquisitions were Edward Atkinson Hornel’s Seashore Roses and John Henry Lorimer’s The Flight of the Swallows, and these paintings remain firm favourites with our visitors. Paintings by leading figures from the Glasgow School and the Scottish Colourists have come into the City’s collection by way of this important gift. Sadly, by the late 1950s the Association had few members and little money, and no new purchases were made after 1960.
In 1961 an Edinburgh lady, Miss Jean F. Watson, at first gave, and then later bequeathed, sums of money with the wish that they should be used to create a collection of Scottish Art for the City. The fund is still in use today, and is the main source of money for new acquisitions. From the outset, the committee charged with administering the funds opted to purchase contemporary works of art by Scottish artists or artists based in Scotland. They also tried, where possible, to fill historic gaps in the City Collection. One of their very first purchases was by a young, rebellious artist not long out of art college, John Bellany. That painting, The Obsession, remains one of the key works in our Collection. Works by important contemporary artists such as Moyna Flannigan, Callum Innes, Peter Howson and Victoria Crowe have all been acquired with Bequest Funds.
In more recent times, the Art Collection has benefited greatly from a bequest through the Scottish Arts Council of over 100 works, and from being part of the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland. This latter scheme, made possible by the Scottish Arts Council with a major investment from the National Lottery and through partnership working with the Contemporary Art Society, has enabled us to acquire works by leading contemporary artists. Those now represented, although not all work in oils, include Toby Paterson, Christine Borland, Graham Fagen, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nathan Coley and Rose Frain.
The City’s art collection now numbers over 4,500 items, including works on paper, sculpture and photographs as well as oil paintings. New additions are made by the Committee on the Jean F. Watson Bequest which meets on average twice a year. We are indebted to the Friends of the City Art Centre, to the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Art Fund, who have consistently awarded grants that have enabled us to make acquisitions which we would otherwise be unable to afford. We are delighted to be part of this marvellous project which we are confident will further enhance this significant collection of Scottish art.
David Patterson, Curator, Fine Art
Text source: PCF / City of Edinburgh Council
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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