The Scotsman

Duncan Macmillan reviews Ages of Wonder at the RSA

The RSA was founded by artists to celebrate their art. That ambition is demonstrab­ly at the heart of this spectacula­r show

- Duncanmacm­illan

The Scottish Academy was founded in 1826, but the rival and better connected Royal Institutio­n for the Promotion of the Fine Arts succeeded in blocking this bunch of mere artists in their quest for official status. It was not till 1838 that the Academy was granted its Royal Charter to become the Royal Scottish Academy. That was shortsight­ed of the Institutio­n. It needed the artists and when they deserted it en bloc for the new Academy, it was doomed and the RSA soon took over the exhibition rooms in the building that is now called the RSA, but was then still called the Royal Institutio­n. The Academy was an artists’ collective. Primarily an exhibiting society, it was also a teaching organisati­on, but sporadical­ly. The long-establishe­d Trustees Academy – which continues in Edinburgh College of Art – already occupied the teaching role, so instead of focusing on it, the RSA began collecting to secure the best art of past and present as examples to the young.

In 1859 the Academy moved to share the new National Gallery building on the Mound to the south. Then in 1910, the northern building, completely remodelled, was given to the RSA for its exclusive use, dislodging the Trustees Academy, which became part of the new College of Art, the Society of Antiquarie­s and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which had all lived there cosily together for most of a century.

In this deal, brokered by Sir James Guthrie, PRSA and James Caw, director of the National Gallery, in exchange for the building, the RSA transferre­d a large part of its own collection to the National Gallery. This was a huge boost to the national collection and really the foundation of the National Gallery’s pre-eminent Scottish Collection. There were also Old Masters in the gift, however, including the bulk of the wonderful collection of drawings that the antiquaria­n David Laing had bequeathed to the RSA. For most of a century thereafter, the RSA lived in its dedicated building, untroubled but not idle. In the early years of the Festival, for instance, it put on a series of major exhibition­s. Cézanne in 1954, for instance, was a turning point in my life and I doubt I am alone.

Fifteen years ago, however, the then director of the National Galleries of Scotland decided that, as heir to the original Board of Manufactur­es who had built it, the Trustees of the NGS were technicall­y owners of the RSA building and so were entitled to dislodge the Academy from much of their home. Whatever the letter of the law, this was certainly not in the spirit of the original agreement. Relations now are cordial, however, and the upside of this unkind putsch was that the NGS was able to muster the resources to completely refurbish the RSA. The jolt also pushed the RSA into reconsider­ing its own mission and under its previous and current presidents, Ian Mckenzie Smith and Arthur Watson, it has done so with remarkable success. The measure of this – and the point of this lengthy preamble – is the stunning exhibition Ages of Wonder, a project driven by the vision of the current president, Arthur Watson, and presented in collaborat­ion with the National Gallery.

Occupying all the exhibition galleries, Ages of Wonder leads us through the many and diverse ways in which the Academy in its long history has championed and still champions the cause of the visual arts in Scotland. It does so too with an admirably light and lively touch. One of the first things that greets you, for instance, is a working life class. Throughout the show a group of pupils selected by their schools will be taught painting from the life. To inspire them, on the wall are superb examples of life-class paintings by some of their great student predecesso­rs. One of the loveliest is by SJ Peploe. Nearby are examples of the Academy’s inspired mix of teaching with collecting. A group of exquisite miniature copies of Old Masters by JF Lewis was bought as a teaching aid in the 1850s, for example. There is also selection from David Laing’s collection of drawings, matchless as things to learn from.

The large and luminous central gallery is spaciously hung with examples of the Academy’s collecting, many of them now in the national collection. One of the NGS’S most familiar Old Masters, Jacopo Bassano’s Adoration of the

Kings, was an Academy purchase, for instance. Raeburn’s magnificen­t full-length of Major William Clunes also hangs nearby. Raeburn died before the Academy was founded, but was its godfather nonetheles­s. The exhibition­s that preceded it were held in his studio. In 1857, David Roberts gave the Academy his magnificen­t

The central gallery is hung with examples of the academy’ s collecting, many of them now in the national collection

15-foot painting of Rome: Sunset from the Convent of Sant’ Onofrio

on the Janiculum. Hung by itself on the east wall, it is truly grand. These pictures are both also now in the National collection, but William Dyce’s full-size, Arthurian cartoon for his decoration­s for the new Palace of Westminste­r still belongs to the Academy.

In a complete change of gear, the small north-eastern gallery has been hung floor to ceiling with a mosaic of nearly a hundred diverse works all in gold frames. This is how the annual exhibition­s once looked and the effect is stunning. In vivid contrast the adjacent gallery is spaciously hung with cool contempora­ry works by Callum Innes, Alison Watt, Eileen Lawrence, Delia Bailey and others. Four beautiful photos by Thomas Joshua Copper endorse the mood. Choice works by John Duncan, Barbara Rae, Victoria Crowe, Joan Eardley and many others hang together under the heading A Nationwide Academy, demonstrat­ing the way the organisati­on embracing the whole of Scotland has always been truly national.

There is sculpture in the sculpture court and a gallery devoted to portraits, including both past presidents and self-portraits. Bringing it right up to date is a fascinatin­g film of Rachael Bibby’s face as she paints herself. The RSA building was designed by William Playfair, but an ambitious alternativ­e proposal by Thomas Hamilton is displayed with work by others among the Academy’s architects past and present.

In the lower galleries, a press has been installed that once belonged to master printmaker ES Lumsden. Print-making demonstrat­ions are ongoing here with superb examples of the printmaker’s art on the surroundin­g walls, including the whole set of Will Maclean’s magnificen­t Night of Islands.

As secretary to the Academy for many years, David Octavius Hill contribute­d greatly to its developmen­t. His portrait and a beautiful view of his native Perth are included in the Victorian hang. He was also a pioneer of photograph­y, however. Some of the calotypes he produced with Robert Adamson are included. So is work by Thomas Keith, another pioneer. It was more than a century before photograph­y was accepted as an art by the Academy, but now it is actually visible in practice as Calum Colvin has set up his studio in the gallery. He will be working during the show on a portrait of Hugh Macdiarmid.

As a pièce de résistance, architect Richard Murphy has designed a polymorphi­c cabinet of curiositie­s which is filled with wonderful things ranging from rare and beautiful books to small sculptures by close friends Tom Whalen and Hew Lorimer to exquisite enamels by Phoebe Traquair. In addition, do not miss the beautiful decorative panels made by Robert Burns for Crawford’s Tearooms, newly restored and installed together in one of the rooms on this floor. The show goes on, too. As you leave, the last room, the Academicia­ns’ Gallery, is filled with rich and diverse work by current members of the Academy.

 ??  ?? Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now Royal Scottish Adademy, Edinburgh
Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now Royal Scottish Adademy, Edinburgh
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 ??  ?? Clockwise from main: Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, by John Duncan, 1923; Yield
Brother by Kenny Hunter, 2009; In the Church of St Jean, Treboul, by Anne Redpath, c.1953-54; Exposed Painting Lamp Black, by Callum Innes, 2015; The Adoration of the Kings, by...
Clockwise from main: Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, by John Duncan, 1923; Yield Brother by Kenny Hunter, 2009; In the Church of St Jean, Treboul, by Anne Redpath, c.1953-54; Exposed Painting Lamp Black, by Callum Innes, 2015; The Adoration of the Kings, by...
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