In a picturesque setting by the River Tay, Perth, known as ‘The Fair City’, developed from a medieval market town, Royal Burgh, and elegant Georgian ‘New Town’, into the gateway to the Highlands of Scotland in the Victorian period. Today it continues to be a popular place to live and work and in 2010 the town celebrated the 800th anniversary of the granting of its Royal Charter. Reflecting this long history, Perth’s collections are among the oldest in public hands. Their origins date back to the founding of the Literary & Antiquarian Society of Perth in 1784. The collections formed by the Society were later housed in a building known as the Marshall Monument, which opened in 1824 as a museum and monument to a former Lord Provost. The design of the building was partly influenced by the Pantheon in Rome. It now forms part of Perth Museum & Art Gallery in George Street, which opened in its current form in 1935.
Oil paintings formed a very small part of the collections in their early history, but included an important portrait by Alexander Runciman of the 11th Earl of Buchan, a noted antiquarian of his day. It was presented to the Society in 1785 by the Earl himself. Many public collections have been shaped by the character of their gifts and bequests and Perth is no exception. The tastes and interests of collectors such as the Earl of Ormelie influenced the development of the collection. His gift of a small group of mainly Italian Old Masters was made to mark his election as MP for Tayside in 1833. The Ormelie Gift includes a portrayal of Saint Andrew by the Spanish master Jusepe de Ribera and a large scale depiction of Prometheus attributed to Caravaggio.
Many aspects of the collection reflect Scottish history from the Reformation onwards. Key examples are a group portrait of the Scottish Reformers and a very rare survivor of Pre-Reformation art from St John’s Kirk in the centre of Perth: a portrait of Saint Bartholomew, patron saint of the Glovers’ Incorporation. It was at the Kirk in 1559 that John Knox preached his sermon against idolatry, leading to the destruction of much of the building’s Catholic furnishings. Scenes from the life of Mary Queen of Scots, clan burials, battles and droving scenes also illustrate Scotland’s colourful and dramatic history.
Not surprisingly, Perth’s image, history and people are reflected in many landscapes, topographical views and portraits. Perth also produced some notable artists such as David Octavius Hill (1802–1870), best known for developing the calotype, an early photographic print, with Robert Adamson. His oil painting, Perth from Boatland, depicts a classical view of the River Tay with the ‘new town’ development in the background. Thomas Duncan was regarded as one of the most promising young artists of the fledgling Scottish School of the early nineteenth century. A large number of his portraits and figurative paintings of Scottish historical subjects feature in the collection. These include several studies for his masterpiece of 1838, The Entrance of Prince Charles Edward Stuart to Edinburgh after Prestonpans.
There are many fine works by artists of the Scottish School, from portrait painters such as Henry Raeburn to figurative painters Robert Scott Lauder and his best known pupils including William MacTaggart and William Quiller Orchardson. Perhaps the best known painting from the Victorian period, however, is the iconic Romantic landscape of Loch Katrine by Horatio McCulloch, dated 1866. Inspired by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, this view of Loch Katrine came to represent the image of Scotland in the popular imagination.
The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais is associated with Perth firstly through his marriage to local girl Effie Gray and secondly through his late, great landscapes of Perthshire subjects. Millais is represented in the collection by three works, including a portrait of Effie and a painting of their daughter Mary called Waking.
The collections were significantly enlarged by two bequests from local businessmen in the 1920s that include Scottish, English, French and Dutch paintings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Amongst them are works by The Glasgow Boys, The Hague School artists and works by the Frenchmen Courbet and Boudin. These gifts reflect the close ties between Scotland and Europe, especially in the development of nineteenth-century Scottish painting and the acquisition of contemporary works by Scottish collectors. Many other benefactors came from the world of business, such as wine and whisky merchants and the Pullars of Perth who owned a large linen weaving and dye works industry in the town.
The next major figure to influence the development of the collections was David Young Cameron, the noted Scottish landscape painter. Cameron had family connections with Perth and made a number of gifts to the Museum in his lifetime. His bequest of 1945 left his art collections, including works on paper, sculpture and applied art, to be divided between The National Gallery of Scotland and Perth Museum & Art Gallery which already housed two of his major landscape paintings, The Wilds of Assynt and Shadows of Glencoe.
The collection continued to benefit from gifts and bequests in the latter half of the twentieth century. These included works by Charles Hodge Mackie, associated with the Post-Impressionist painter Gauguin and the French Symbolists. Perth has one of the most comprehensive bodies of his work in any public collection.
In 1991 Perth’s collections were effectively doubled in size with the donation of the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation’s collection of artworks by the Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson together with its associated archive. The collection spans Fergusson’s entire career, starting with large scale early portraits such as The White Ruff, 1907 and Le manteau chinois, 1909. Other key paintings include those showing the influence of the Fauve painters such as At My Studio Window, 1910. Many of his later paintings such as Danu, Mother of the Gods explore his feelings about the rhythms and life force to be found in nature as well as his expressions of Celtic Scottish identity. The collection is a unique record of the life and work of one of Scotland’s best known and loved artists of international standing. The Fergusson Gallery opened in 1992 to house this new collection. Located in a converted water tower with a copper dome, it is a notable landmark on the waterfront of the River Tay in Perth.
The Fergusson Gallery’s collection has been further developed with the donation in 2010 of the Margaret Morris Archive. Morris, Fergusson’s lifelong partner, was a pioneer of modern dance and a talented artist in her own right. Bringing these two collections together unites the cultural legacy of two major figures who inspired and influenced each other’s work in the fields of art and dance for 50 years. Their work reflects the bohemian lifestyle and interests of this fascinating couple, with Fergusson’s paintings stimulated by the Margaret Morris Movement Summer Schools and Morris’s own work in dance, choreography and design steered by Fergusson’s aesthetics and art theories.
Perth’s collections were also given a major boost in 1997 with the Scottish Arts Council Collection Bequest. This significantly expanded the modern and contemporary collection with works by the post-war Edinburgh School and other major Scottish artists such as Jack Knox and Robert Colquhoun. The twentieth-century collections include work by well-known women artists such as Laura Knight, Anne Redpath and Joan Eardley. Steady development of the contemporary collection has ensured that it represents the best of Scottish art. The four major art schools of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen are represented by some of their most prominent alumni including John Bellany, John Byrne, Joyce Cairns, Derrick Guild, Barbara Rae and Donald Urquhart.
Perth Museum & Art Gallery and The Fergusson Gallery are both managed by Perth & Kinross Council. In October 2007 the Council’s collection was recognised as a Collection of National Significance in a scheme administered by Museums Galleries Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government.
Maria Devaney, Principal Officer (Art)
Text source: PCF / Perth & Kinross Council
This description was originally written for a catalogue.