City's art collection captures Edinburgh through the ages, here Dr Helen Scott shares her favourites

In the second of a new series in which five curators from some of the city’s best loved museums and galleries choose their favourite artefacts, today it’s the turn of Dr Helen Scott, who reveals the treasures housed in Edinburgh’s fine art collection, housed in the City Arts Centre on Market Street.

Dr Helen Scott at Edinburgh's City Arts Centre
Dr Helen Scott at Edinburgh's City Arts Centre

THE City Art Centre, located just behind Waverley Station, is home to the City of Edinburgh’s fine art collection - one of the best collections of Scottish art in the country - and provides a venue for exhibitions focusing on historical and contemporary Scottish visual arts and crafts.

This nine-storey building hasn’t always been an art gallery. Constructed between 1899 and 1902, it was originally an extension for the Scotsman newspaper building next door. It subsequently became a fruit and vegetable warehouse, part of the market that gave its name to the nearby Fruit- market Gallery. The final transformation into an art gallery took place in 1980.

While the City Art Centre is a relatively recent addition to Edinburgh’s cultural scene, the fine art collection has a much longer history. The collection began as part of the city’s wider museum collections in the 19th century, with artworks acquired and preserved alongside historical objects. The first artworks to enter the collection were civic portraits and topographical views of Edinburgh.

Great Junction Street, Leith, by Jock McFadyen

Over the years the collection expanded to include artworks in various styles and media. It now features paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, photography, tapestry, video and installation art, covering the period from the 17th century to present day. There are almost 5000 individual artworks, and that number continues to grow.

Among the highlights of the collection are a group of paintings by the Scottish Colourists - Peploe, Fergusson, Cadell and Hunter. The Black Hat by FCB Cadell is one of the best-known; a confident portrait set in an elegant New Town interior. The Glasgow Boys are also well represented, with key compositions by EA Hornel, George Henry and John Lavery.

Lavery’s double portrait Miss McLaren and Mrs Oliver is one of our largest paintings, measuring almost two and a half metres in height. The collection records many important moments in Edinburgh’s rich history, as in John Wilson Ewbank’s monumental Entry of George IV into Edinburgh from the Calton Hill, 1822. The detail conveyed in this crowded scene is extraordinary.

The collection also documents the changing face of the city. Jock McFadyen’s Great Junction Street depicts a former art deco cinema and bingo hall in Leith, in the years before its 21st century redevelopment. There are some ‘old favourites’ in the collection, which visitors always love. For instance, there’s John Duncan’s Celtic Revival masterpiece Tristan and Isolde, or Joan Eardley’s windswept Catterline landscape Summer Grasses and Barley on the Clifftop.

City Arts Centre, Edinburgh

There are some real hidden gems too, such as Charles Altamont Doyle’s The Winning Shot - Duddingston Loch, a characterful sketch of a curling party. Not only is this a fascinating image, but the artist was the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In recent years the City Art Centre has championed lesser-known Scottish artists, staging major exhibitions dedicated to figures like Edwin G Lucas, Robert Blomfield and Mary Cameron.

It’s also important that we continue to acquire work by contemporary artists, ensuring that the collection remains relevant for future generations. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on museums and galleries around the world. At the City Art Centre we’ve had to re-plan events, postpone exhibitions and temporarily close our doors to the public.

One of the exhibitions affected by the situation is The Italian Connection, a collection-based display that was supposed to run until May. The exhibition explores the long-term artistic links between Scotland and Italy, with works by such as Allan Ramsay, Eduardo Paolozzi and Elizabeth Blackadder. One of the highlights is Interior - Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by FCB Cadell, completed following Cadell’s first visit to Venice.

The good news is that when the City Art Centre eventually reopens audiences will be able to visit The Italian Connection once again. It’s an exhibition that celebrates Edinburgh’s artistic treasures and the international bonds that connect us globally - a reminder to cherish what we have and nurture those bonds.

Dr Helen Scott, Curator of Fine Art, City Arts Centre

Further information on The City Art Centre can be found on the Museums & Galleries Edinburgh website - www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk

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