Edinburgh: “True to Life” exhibition


Scottish National Gallery of (ahem) Modern Art, Edinburgh

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.


Pauline Waiting by James Dunne, oil on canvas, 1939

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 Carline’s more painterly “Elsie” (although Elsie herself might have preferred to be painted by Frampton!). Stanley Spencer was plainly an idiosyncratic genius.


Resting Acrobats by Glyn Philpot, oil on canvas, 1934

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) . . .


Hiking by James Walker Tucker, tempera on panel, 1936

Artists I saw were: Mary Adshead, Harry Epworth Allen, Maxwell Armfield, Edward Baird, Margaret Barker, James Bateman, Alan Beeton, Pamela Bianco, Clive Branson, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Edward Burra, Hilda Carline, Ralph Nicholas Chubb, John Cosmo Clark, Gerald Cooper, James Cowie, John Downton, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Meredith Frampton, Colin Gill, Lancelot Myles Glasson, Gluck, Sir Herbert James Gun, Edward Halliday, Harold Harvey, Keith Henderson, Tristram Hillier, Gladys Hynes, David Jagger, Dame Laura Knight, Winifred Knights, Stanley Lewis, John Luke, Fortunino Matania, John McKenzie, Malcolm Milne, Sir Thomas Monnington, Victor Moody, Harry Morley, Alberto Morrocco, Thomas Nash, Algernon Newton, James McIntosh Patrick, Glyn Philpot, Dod Procter, Ernest Procter, Harry Riley, Clifford Rowe, Albert Rutherston, John Bulloch Souter, Charles Spencelayh, Gilbert Spencer, Sir Stanley Spencer, Mark Lancelot Symons, Leonard Campbell Taylor, James Walker Tucker, Edward Wadsworth, Harold Williamson (and just typing that makes me realise how many – even if still a minority – women artists there are in that list compared to previous eras).

* 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.

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