Give Glasgow a gallery worthy of our best artists
The Observer, By Kevin McKenna
The Two Roberts exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, celebrating the work of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, highlights the need for a national gallery in the west.
A parable on the power of drawing and painting to transform lives is unfolding across a few rooms in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, that gorgeous location in the west of Edinburgh where you encounter the city at its most handsome. The Two Roberts commemorates the work of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, working-class Ayrshire artists whose stars are among the brightest in the firmament of the Glasgow School of Art where they lurked and painted for a few years in the 1930s.
They were born within a year of each other and a few miles apart, in 1913 and 1914: Colquhoun in Kilmarnock, MacBryde in Maybole. Twenty years later, they enrolled at Glasgow School of Art where they became friends and lovers until untimely death separated them. If you have an opportunity to visit this exhibition, which runs until May, then I would recommend it. Tarry long in room four of the exhibition where, to my untrained eye, you encounter their art at its most vivid and dramatic, influenced by Picasso, cubism and expressionism yes, but conveying a colour and austerity of form all of their own.
Their lives were as rich and textured as anything they drew or painted. In the 1940s, they achieved acclaim in London and big metropolitan buyers were all over their work. They were friends of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud and considered to be their equal.
But like many other Scots who went to London before and since, they were consumed by drink and depression as their appeal waned and the money retreated. They died in penury and amid chaos, within a few years of each other just either side of 50. Though rudely truncated – what lives they lived and how well they lived them. And how appropriate that this exhibition, in which Scotland finally acclaims them and brings them home, occurs as the Glasgow School of Art, which nurtured their gifts, confirms its reputation as one of Europe’s most important centres of contemporary art. The announcement last week that Douglas Campbell had become the 30th winner of the Turner prize established Glasgow’s ownership of modern art’s most important garland. Since 1996, five Mackintosh alumni have won this prize while four others have been nominated.
Of course, The Two Roberts exhibition could never have been staged in Glasgow. The finances and painstaking curatorship required to source and extricate these works from collections all over the world is beyond the budget of any establishment in the west. The Edinburgh art establishment resides behind a silver veil of entitlement and they have long dictated that only their city can be home to Scotland’s national collections and most important temporary exhibitions. Only these three establishments, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery, are permitted the millions in government money to maintain their treasures and to add to them. They are a symbol of the unimaginative and complacent elitism that has continued to hold sway over the arts and culture policy of compliant Scottish governments.
Like so many others, the wonderful Two Roberts exhibition, amid the UK’s highest geographical concentration of fee-paying schools, is beyond the reach of all but the most determined comprehensive schools in west-central Scotland. And this is a real shame because children from more disadvantaged backgrounds need to know about Colquhoun and MacBryde.
They need to know especially that neither of them was initially considered smart enough to enter any college or university. But they need also to encounter more of the world’s great art and be let into the great secret: if you have an imagination you can do anything.
Presently, though, the privileged keepers of Scotland’s national collections only sporadically enter the consciousness of normal children from the country’s biggest and most populous city. And that’s usually when the government intermittently provides the Edinburgh galleries with tens of millions in public money to purchase a stray or mendicant Leonardo or such that really ought to be at home with its brother and sister creations in Florence.
There is a remedy for this wretched state of affairs and successive Scottish governments have known about it for many years. It is the establishment of a Scottish national gallery of photography in Glasgow. Almost a decade ago, Graham Murdoch, a revolutionary figure in newspaper photography and design throughout the UK, and a son of Brechin, led an attempt to do this with Heritage Lottery funding. Crucially, the Labour-led Scottish Executive failed to back the plan and the attempt stalled. Murdoch’s idea was to locate Scotland’s remarkable collection of photography in Edinburgh, but gradually he realised Glasgow would be the best and most appropriate location for this.
The concept, though, of any gallery bearing the imprint “national” residing outside Edinburgh sparked a fit of the vapours in some influential figures among the city’s elite. Murdoch recalls: “It was felt that Edinburgh was the only Scottish city with the proper artistic and cultural heritage to house any national collection. And it was made clear to me that I would encounter significant opposition in trying to wrest our present collection of photography from the clutches of the national galleries establishment.”
Murdoch has also observed the power of photography to unlock the artistic and creative potential in children from disadvantaged communities throughout Scotland: “All you need is a camera and imagination and almost every family in Scotland possesses both of these.” A few years ago, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery hosted an exhibition of Harry Benson’s photography, which attracted many who do not normally visit art galleries very often.
The documentation and research of Murdoch’s lottery bid is today lying somewhere in his home in two cardboard boxes. And I am calling on Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s highly regarded culture secretary, to revive this project and give Glasgow, the city that voted yes, a long overdue national gallery and all the resources to make it a great one.