THE cafe door at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery swings open and the noise is quite unexpected for a sprawling Victorian building in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
There’s a clatter of coffee cups and a constant buzz of chatter. Young mums are negotiating buggies through packed tables and there, in the middle of it all, gallery director James Holloway is laughing, hands gesturing flamboyantly, dapper in three-piece tweed suit, nattering with a couple of female visitors.
The racket might not be quite at the same decibel level that Holloway is about to experience as he – surprisingly for a man more acquainted with the genteel world of art – roars off towards retirement on the back of a 1000cc Ducati motorbike, leaving behind the gallery he’s just helped steer through a £17.6 million revamp. But, like the growl of that gleaming motorbike, the sound of a busy portrait gallery is one that Holloway can’t get enough of.
“Isn’t it great?,” he grins, striding through the cafe where perhaps one of the gallery’s oddest portraits of all – a curious figure clutching a Brussels sprout plant with a candle sticking out the top – stares down on mums struggling with toddlers, the pensioners, the students and those drawn to see just what all that money buys you in terms of a refurbishment.
That particular Richard Waitte painting, he says, remains one of his favourites in the entire gallery. It is, he explains, about role reversal. The man holding the sprout plant with the candle is the Earl of Cromarty in the role of his fool – a lesson that behind every image is a much deeper, more complex story.
Perhaps it’s particularly apt, then, that it’s this portrait that tickles Holloway most of all. Delve deeper and you’ll find there’s much more to this gallery boss than initially meets the eye.
For a start, there’s the lifelong love of daredevil speed and motorbikes – soon the 63-year-old will leave the decorous art world behind for an epic journey on his Ducati through Europe to the Italian Dolomites.
But if leather-clad biker is diametrically opposed to the traditional image of staid gallery boss, then what of Holloway’s gleeful recollection of his time in the wrestling ring, when he swapped the National Gallery on the Mound for smack downs in front of roaring crowds of burly blokes in grim industrial towns?
“It was an antidote to galleries,” he says with a broad grin. “It’s easy to work in a gallery, and it can be a bit ‘precious’. Yet here was this other world out there that was interesting and engaging and I saw there was more to life.”
One anecdote that perhaps best sums up how at odds this image of art expert turned grappler is could be this – it was 1972 and Sussex-born Holloway, 23, with his cut-glass accent, and fresh from the Court- auld Institute of Art in London, had just arrived to work as a research assistant at the National Gallery, “ignorant as a swan” about Scotland and her art.
Keen to keep fit, he went to Meadowbank and spotted some lads wearing tracksuits.
“They all had Milton written on their tracksuits. I liked that. I thought ‘Oh! Paradise Lost by Milton!’” It’s fair to say 17th-century poets were not on the minds of the young chaps he’d encountered. Soon he discovered that, of course, “Milton” actually referred to Milton Road West, where their wrestling club was based.
Holloway, spry and lean, joined their ranks. His fellow wrestlers figured he was simply an attendant working at the National Gallery.
“To most of them, Goya was perfume and Rembrandt a cigar, they didn’t care what I did,” Holloway reflects. Besides, the gap in social backgrounds would soon be overcome after his first bout. “It was at Garscadden Town Hall, in the seventies, it was pretty rough. Everyone was shouting ‘Come on, Jimmy, kill him! Kill him!’ I won and was quite pleased,” he says. “Then I realised the guy I’d been wrestling was called Jimmy too. It wasn’t me they were shouting for, it was him. So, yes, we did get out of there pretty quickly.”
He was good enough to wrestle at national level. But, by 30, the demands of training four nights a week plus a move to work at the National Museum Wales put an end to wrestling.
However, Holloway already had another outlet for the pent-up energy that working behind the scenes in the world of art couldn’t quite burn off.
He had loved motorbikes since his youth when he acquired a BSA Bantam 250cc, which “broke down every weekend, I thought that was what bikes did”. In Edinburgh he encountered bike dealer Ernie Page, who introduced him to a 350cc Ducati, the start of a love affair spanning decades and thousands of miles, with the odd bump and bruise thrown in.
“Oh yes, I’ve had a few falls, nothing terminal though,” he smiles. “I came off around two and half years ago. Hit a bird at about 60mph. It hit my hand and knocked me sideways.
“I remember sliding under the bike, going along the road and then along the verge and thinking that any second now my leg will break. Then suddenly the bike slipped into a gully below and I walked away.”
There were two casualties, however. “As I skidded along the grass, I ripped my boots and trousers completely off. So there I was, totally bare!”
Hopefully there will be no similar dramas during his epic European bike tour. And at least he’ll have expert company. Former police motorcyclist, Alistair McLean, from Gorebridge – who he met during a Scottish National Portrait Gallery project which looked at the police in Scotland – will be by his side. Prior to that, Holloway heads to India for a catch-up with friends and to Canberra in Australia for a lecture.
In between, he’ll find time to play French horn with the Colinton Orchestra, attempt to conquer his inability to garden and plot some kind of vision for how he’ll spend the rest of his retirement.
The fact that he’s retiring right after the gallery’s triumphant reopening – and being awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours List for services to the arts – is, he insists, entirely logical.
“I have always wanted to get the portrait gallery up and running and firing on all cylinders – to use a motorbike analogy. I was in charge for 14 years, I didn’t want to coast,” he adds. “I wanted to go out, if possible, on a high, feeling I’ve achieved something.”
Visitor figures confirm the gallery is, indeed, on a high. There were 52,000 visitors in December – roaring towards achieving the 300,000 visitors per annum the gallery has set its sights on.
Still, Holloway concedes that he goes with mixed feelings. Sadness to be leaving hardworking staff and friends but delight to depart at the start of a revitalised era with his number two, Nicola Kalinsky, in his place as director. “In the early Seventies, this place was out of fashion, people disliked the Victorian architecture, and portrait was seen as terribly outdated,” he points out.
“Now the whole thing is completely changed, it’s one of the city’s favourite buildings. Portraits, from being downtrodden and portrayed as a joke are now fashionable.
“At last the gallery is getting the appreciation that it deserves,” he adds.
“It has a fantastic collection, brilliant staff. It’s nice to go feeling it’s finally going to be firmly placed on the cultural map.”
Face to face
James Holloway retires after 14 years as director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
In that time he’s overseen the building’s refurbishment as well as placed commissions for new work, organised groundbreaking exhibitions and acquired coveted works of art.
But while the purchase of an Allan Ramsay portrait of philosopher David Hume is among his fondest memories, the loss of one painting still grieves him.
“We had a painting which had been with us for about 50 years,” he says. “It was a portrait of an Arab princess and her African Negress slave painted in 1740 by Walter Frier.
“The story behind it was that John Henderson of Fordell in Fife was shipwrecked by pirates and rescued by this princess. He married her and brought her back to Scotland with her slave.
“I actually thought [the painting] belonged to us. Then suddenly out of the blue came a letter from the owner saying it would be removed as he was going to sell it.
“We tried to raise the money but couldn’t. I don’t know where it is now, possibly in the Middle East. I still kick myself over it.”