Edinburgh is a handsomer city than Glasgow I suppose, but the centre lacks the latter’s eclecticism. I like mercantile cities that experienced a burst of dynamism in the 19th/early 20th centuries, even if it means that they also suffered a corresponding decline once their industries faded away. (I’ll add the caveat that I might not hold this opinion if cities like Glasgow and Leeds hadn’t tarted themselves up since then to attract the affluent weekend visitor.)
But I’m now in Edinburgh with its fine vistas and magnificent architecture, and this afternoon I went to the exhibition “True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 30s”. I thought it was brilliant. So brilliant that I broke my rule and bought the catalogue. Not necessarily because the paintings were all that great (some of them could have come out of Ladybird books or a frontispiece for an adventure story) but they spoke directly to that British core in me: the core that dredged up the word “frontispiece” from somewhere and is flashing coloured illustrations from Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series before my mind’s eye as I type.
The exhibition also filled in a few gaps and made connections with other paintings I have seen. The curators had borrowed Gerald Brockhurst’s “Dorette” from the Harris, and once again that juxtaposition of the Mona Lisa hills with a modern woman struck me as unusual. Or perhaps not: there was another, very similar Brockhurst, “By the Hills”, which had (obviously) the hills, Dorette’s torso and another woman’s head, which was painted so realistically that it was uncanny. James Dunn and Pauline were there too; this time “Pauline Waiting” in black with a dead animal over her wrist. Also Algernon Newton, the Canaletto of Regent’s Canal Basin, whose two paintings here were just as melancholic and irresistible.
It was interesting to think what “realist” meant. Noah ushering the animals into the ark? Some paintings had a photographic quality but with odd perspective. Alternatively, Meredith Frampton’s portraits were flawless, but somehow bloodless and dead: one of his female sitters seemed to be carved out of alabaster. I preferred Hilda Caroline’s more painterly “Elsie” (although Elsie herself might have preferred to be painted by Frampton!). Stanley Spencer was plainly an idiosyncratic genius.
Also interesting was the information that before WWI many art students were encouraged to study early Italian Renaissance painting, and there was a room that looked like Giotto and Raphael had been in it*. Given what the Glasgow Boys and Scottish Colourists had already produced, this does seem very conservative. However, I guess it was linked to what people wanted to buy, and I have to admit that technically “Pauline Waiting” is a delight – albeit in a very different way to Fergusson and Cadell’s women with hats this morning.
Yes, “conservative” seemed to be the mot juste for much of the exhibition, despite the portrayal of modern activities like hiking, picnics and swimming. Thinking about the Otto Dix exhibition I visited recently, these paintings seemed oddly unmoved by troubled times, unless you see a retreat to nature painting as the result of trauma. And then I came across Glyn Philpot and his Resting Acrobats (c. 1924) . . .
* In fact, “Hiking” (c. 1936) by James Walker Tucker was tempera on panel. It gave the painting a lovely brightness, but it was amusing to wonder if these outdoorsy women were to be viewed as modern Madonnas.