Art out of the shadows

Iain Robertson's Jig is one of the attractions at the exhibition
Iain Robertson's Jig is one of the attractions at the exhibition
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THE closest many of us get to actually owning an original piece of art is when junior decides to dig out the paint box and wildly splatter primary colours on a sheet of paper, the walls and the floor.

And the result, while perhaps much loved, probably channels Jackson Pollock on a bad day more than a finely chiselled Ian Hamilton Finlay sculpture or a stunning example of a well-kent Edinburgh vista, rich in vibrant colour and detail, so striking it would go on to be used for railway posters extolling the city’s beauty.

Yet we all own a precious stake in thousands of highly desirable works of original art – and there are just a few days left in which to see some of it.

The latest acquisitions to Edinburgh’s massive public collection, acquired in the past few years through donation, bequest and purchase from a special fund set up in the 1960s specifically for art, are about to be packed away after attracting thousands of visitors eager to gaze upon a fascinating group of works.

Two floors of the City Art Centre have been given over to an eclectic mix of modern and traditional art that includes a variety of captivating city scenes and characters.

Some, such as a vibrant view of a newly built Waverley Station and an 1883 Alexander Legget painting of activity on mussel boats at Newhaven Harbour depict a city long gone.

Historically intriguing, they hang alongside modern and dazzling works such as a dark depiction of the crucifixion by Peter Howson, below. They help make up a 4500-strong, world-class collection of oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture and installation art stretching from the 17th century to the present.

Worth millions of pounds, the collection is the result of a visionary civic policy to invest in the arts, drawn up by 18th-century city fathers who believed a thriving cultural life was vital to the successful functioning of the Capital.

Many recent acquisitions have been funded through a bequest from Edinburgh art lover Jean Watson, grants and donations. “Jean Watson was an Edinburgh lady who died in the 60s,” explains curator David Patterson. “She gave a sum of money while she was still alive and then left a further sum in her will, specifically to be used to build up art in Edinburgh.

“The money has been invested and we use the interest to purchase new additions to the collections.”

Among the latest acquisitions currently on show is a fascinating portrait of former Scotsman editor Sir Alastair Dunnett, dramatically posed and wearing his kilt, binoculars in hand, painted by his wife, historical writer Dorothy Dunnett.

It shares exhibition space on the first floor with other Edinburgh-related works, among them a vividly coloured 1950s view of the Palace of Holyroodhouse captured from a viewpoint in Regent Terrace by Claude Buckle. The colours are particularly dazzling as it was to be used to create a British Railways poster.

It’s one of a selection of cityscapes that includes a captivating painted sketch by 19th-century artist Andrew Wilson of a view across The Mound towards Calton Hill and the spot where the ill-fated National Monument would be eventually built.

Of particular interest, adds Mr Patterson, is a panoramic view of Waverley Station by J H Ross, from around 1848 and believed to be the first recorded image of the railway hub.

“It was bought a few years ago at auction,” he explains, “and was painted just after Waverley Station was built.”

Modern works are featured, among them a watercolour by city-born artist Hugh Buchanan of a sunlit scene within Lauriston Castle. But it’s an image of well-known local character Jenny Armstrong, the last Pentlands shepherdess who died in the 90s, that is among the most poignant, says Mr Patterson. “It’s by Victoria Crowe, who painted Jenny for 20 years before her death. The final portrait shows her at the end of her life, in a wheelchair, at home in her cottage surrounded by her nick-nacks.”

Recent Acquisitions is at the City Art Centre in Market Street until next Saturday, admission free.