Art exhibition charts Capital’s changing landscape

City Art Centre senior curator Ian O'Riordan in front of John Ballany's Glenogle Baths. Picture: Esme Allen
City Art Centre senior curator Ian O'Riordan in front of John Ballany's Glenogle Baths. Picture: Esme Allen
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FROM the medieval streets of the Old Town to the neoclassical grandeur of the New Town, the ­skyline of Edinburgh has changed dramatically over the centuries.

With the launch of an exhibition at The City Art Centre this weekend, keen-eyed art lovers will be able to see just how much.

A Capital View – The Art of Edinburgh charts the city’s transformation through the eyes of some of the country’s most celebrated painters, print-makers and sculptors.

It brings together for the first time 190 images including prints, paintings, sketches and photographs.

Collections manager David Patterson says: “There is a broad range of subject matter, and a broad range of media and anyone with an interest in Edinburgh will find something to intrigue them.

“What I think people will enjoy most is standing in front of a view and trying to work out how it has changed.”

The exhibition complements a new book based on the centre’s art collection written by Alyssa Popiel.

Alyssa, who lives and works in the Capital, was inspired to write it by a smaller exhibition held here three years ago.

“Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city, full of heritage and history. Over the centuries its world famous views have inspired generations of Scottish artists,” she says.

“The city collection is one of the most significant collections of Scottish art and I hope this portrait of my hometown will inspire visitors to rediscover and appreciate our historic city and familiarise themselves with some of Edinburgh’s great artists.”

The book features 100 artworks from the city collection – from the Enlightenment to the present day – accompanied by extended captions which provide context plus related lively historical ­anecdotes.

A large view painted by retired architect and artist William Highet shows that Edinburgh continues to change.

Depicting the Royal Mile in 2003 as seen from the Castle Esplanade, it shows how even such an iconic view is not impervious to change.

Mr Patterson says: “It is a very detailed and you can see how much has changed in that short space of time. Shops have changed hands, a bookshop is now something else.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Streets and lanes have been known to literally disappear off the map as buildings are demolished and new ones spring up in their place. Sometimes these changes come about through design, sometimes through tragedy.

In 1824, a great fire destroyed the buildings between the Tron Kirk – which lost its spire – and Parliament Close.

The devastating results are shown in lithographs produced three days after the blaze raged through the ­buildings.

In 1861, a tenement collapsed in the Old Town, killing 35 people and prompting a drive to rebuild the dilapidated area.

Granted its original charter by David I in the mid-12th century, the city was for centuries limited to the “crag and tail” ridge running eastwards from the Castle Rock.

It was only in the 18th century that the city broke the bounds of its medieval confinement to achieve a permanent place among the world’s most beautiful destinations.

Mr Patterson says: “By the mid-19th century there is no getting away from the fact that, as the New Town was being built, the Old Town was left to fester.

“The working class lived in the Old Town and, while the professional class may have worked there, they lived in the New Town.”

The exhibition also shows how taste in subject matter changed among the artists themselves.

At the ­zenith of the romantic era, Victorian painters preferred to depict the faded splendour and eccentricities of the Old Town and were not particularly interested in the classical facades of the New Town.

In the 20th century, tastes changed again and artists began to show a greater interest in the suburbs away from the traditional tourist areas.

Among the earliest views are works by William Delacour, Paul Sandby and John Clerk of Eldin, depicting scenes which had not changed significantly since medieval times. Alexander Nasmyth captured the city during the golden age of the Scottish Enlightenment, while Sir Henry Raeburn painted many of the influential figures of the same period. By contrast, artists such as James Howe, John Kay and Charles Doyle portrayed the town’s ‘ordinary folk’ at work and at play.

The exhibition includes portraits of leading civic figures, landowners, pioneers and performers as well as city porters and street traders. Notable 20th-century artists such as Sir John Lavery, Dorothy Johnstone and John Houston are all represented alongside works by those not so well-known.

City council culture leader Councillor Richard Lewis adds: “The unique landscape of Edinburgh and the city’s rich heritage is appreciated by residents and visitors the world over. In the year of the Referendum and the Commonwealth Games, it is fitting that this exhibition will shine a spotlight on Scotland’s Capital.”

The exhibition, which is on until July 6, will be open from Monday to Saturday from 10am and 5pm, and Sundays 12pm to 5pm.