The only reason to buy a painting is that you like it – Sir John Richmond (1869 – 1963), Scottish businessman and collector of Impressionist art
What makes a painting beautiful? The painter’s talent, naturally. But, as the National Galleries of Scotland’s exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism, shows, that’s just the start. STAGE LEFT looks at some of the people whose vision and generosity made art desirable – and accessible.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Orchard in Blossom was painted in 1888, one of several works by the artist of fruit trees in bloom.
Matthew Justice, who ran a Dundee furniture business, bought the painting, as well as works by Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Sisley and Vuillard. Justice sold Orchard in Blossom to a director of Keiller’s (of marmalade fame) and it was later acquired by Rosalind and Alexander Maitland, son of a Dundee jute merchant.
In the early twentieth century Dundee was renowned, along with Glasgow and Edinburgh, as one of the major art centres of Britain (https://artuk.org/discover/curations/the-dundee-art-collectors). Jam, jute and Impressionism.
Taste and generosity
The Maitlands were typical of Scotland’s industrialist-connoisseurs of French modern art for two reasons.
First, their collection was extensive and pioneering: Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Van Gogh and many others.
Nowadays these artists’ works draw massive crowds and eye-watering bids. But, at the outset, the impressionists were outsiders. Their rebellion against the Paris Salon fired their radical aesthetic. Well into the 1900’s, as Scotland’s pioneering collectors sought out their pictures, they were still considered style revolutionaries. By dedication and discernment, Scotland’s entrepreneurial collectors were ahead of the curve before a curve existed.
Second, these collectors were peculiarly selfless when it came to sharing their beautiful works. Alexander Maitland presented their collection to the National Galleries in Rosalind’s memory and they had always chosen pictures to complement public acquisitions.
The world-class range of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Scotland derives from this kind of generosity. The first major bequest, in 1911 from Hugh Laird, enabled the Edinburgh galleries to amass a range of nineteenth century French paintings.
Other philanthropists included Isabel Davidson, a music lover, who left not just Monets, Pissarros and Vuillards to the National Galleries of Scotland but also her house and Bechstein piano to St. Mary’s Music School and Anne Kessler – fortune from Dutch oil – who gave her favourite painting, Cezanne’s Big Trees to Edinburgh.
By 1995, NGS held the most significant range of Surrealist art, thanks to 170 works bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller (marmalade again).
Glasgow’s dealer, Vincent’s twin
Paintings found their way from France to Scotland due to the keen eye of dealers, one of the shrewdest being a Glaswegian, Alexander Reid.
Reid worked with Theo van Gogh, who introduced him to his brother Vincent. The three of them shared a flat in Paris in the 1880’s and Vincent painted Reid’s portrait. The two looked so alike, it was first thought to be a self-portrait. Frances Fowle, the Taste for Impressionism curator, dubs Reid Van Gogh’s Twin. (https://www.abebooks.co.uk/first-edition/Goghs-Twin-FOWLE-Francis-National-Galleries/30916409547/bd)
That Portrait of Alexander Reid is one of the best-loved pictures at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. (https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/bbc-van-gogh-glasgow-famous-14007978).
Reid promoted the colourists Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell and other Scottish artists like William MacTaggart and the Glasgow Boys. He sold works by Degas to William Burrell (still in the eponymous Collection) who said that Reid introduced more fine pictures to Scotland than anyone else. (https://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/essay1.php?enum=1097247776).
The name’s Gogh. Van Gogh.
What’s the connection between Van Gogh and James Bond? Were Vincent’s oil paints shaken, not stirred? No. Evelyn Fleming, inspired by her lover, bought French art, including Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman. Evelyn was mother of Ian Fleming, 007’s creator.
A brilliant piece of spywork, using X-rays, sparked a frisson just before the exhibition opened in July this year. On the back of the canvas, under a sheet of cardboard, a self-portrait was discovered. It took the number of Van Gogh works held by the galleries from 3 to 4. This happens once or twice in a lifetime, says Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson, it’s very special for a collection that belongs to the people of Scotland. (https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/taste-impressionism-modern-french-art-millet-matisse).
A communal past and an uncertain future
Whatever you feel about the art, perhaps the best thing about these exceptional works is their public accessibility. We can only admire the faith of Scotland’s early entrepreneurs in a shared civic realm for such treasures.
They would, I imagine, be horrified that our public art institutions are now struggling for survival. The NGS has closed its Modern Art building till 2023, with the director-general citing costs – heating especially – and the worst funding crisis imaginable. (https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/23057469.edinburgh-modern-two-art-gallery-closes-doors-amid-funding-crisis/).
Can our cultural sector survive the coming struggles? Scotland’s going to need all the qualities of its artistic pioneers: invention, taste, zeal, and a staunch devotion to public service.
The exhibition A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse is at the Royal Scottish Academy, National Galleries of Scotland
The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL until Sunday 13 November 2022.