ALL was going swimmingly at the opening of the new gallery.
The Duke of Edinburgh, the royal guest, had been mingling and chatting with guests in the refurbished space at the English Speaking Union in Edinburgh. Jan Morrison, the owner of the Leith Gallery, which was hosting the exhibition, was breathing a sigh of relief and looking forward to the prince’s wee speech, in which she expected him to thank everyone for coming and urge them to buy a painting.
Instead, a few moments later, the royal consort explained to the gathered crowd that he wouldn’t be buying anything because his wife wouldn’t let him – “I think he actually used the expression ‘her indoors’,” says Jan – and anyway, he added, everything was jolly expensive.
“It was meant as a joke, of course,” Jan says with a sigh. “But really it wasn’t very helpful – if anyone had been swithering about whether to buy or not it might have put them off.”
Luckily it didn’t and in the ten years since then Jan has had to learn to be philosophical about a lot more than just royal jokes. The gallery has just opened its Christmas exhibition, an eclectic mix of new and more established artists, with works ranging from sunshine-lit scenes of Provence through delicate depictions of unfolding flowers to colourful portrayals of Edinburgh. But Jan is hoping that the accompanying soundtrack of council workers’ drills won’t put as many people off as it did in November when the gallery only did about a fifth of its normal business.
She is trying very hard not to see the work – part of a scheme to improve the appearance of The Shore where the gallery is located – as the latest stage of an Edinburgh City Council conspiracy. It was back in January 2010 when scaffolding went up.
“The stone work on the building above us was going to fall on the pavement, so it was a statutory notice from the council,” she explains. “It was supposed to come down in the May but it was actually the following January – it got caught up in the scandal in that department. Then the road immediately in front of the gallery was dug up.”
No sooner was that finished then the scaffolding went back up. “They didn’t put up the full scaffolding – just outside our door. We just thought: ‘What‘s next? A plague of frogs?’” Barely had that gone then workers hired by the council’s services for communities came along with a plan for a welcome spruce-up of the street but which unfortunately has meant the closure of the whole Shore, accompanied by an ear-shattering drilling.
“I have a splitting headache by the end of the day,” she says. “I don’t know how these men cope because they are not wearing earmuffs. People come in and start to talk to you then just leave. You can’t hear anything.”
It’s not a good combination when added to an economic downturn and a purse-tightening which has seen many people knock works of art off their shopping list. But there is every reason to think that the Leith Gallery will not just survive but continue to thrive.
After all, it has managed 16 years in Leith, opening up at a time when the port was not as fashionable as it is now. “I wanted to make art accessible to people,” Jan says of her decision to open in the port. “I’ve often found galleries staffed by people busy organising hunt balls and are annoyed that you’re interrupting their social life when you walk in. You can’t be pretentious in Leith, it’s a contradiction in terms.”
Perhaps her fresh view is helped by the fact that Jan, who owns the gallery with husband Muir, was from outside the art world herself. A former finance director with Scottish Provident, she only realised the toll her high-flying job was taking when she was made redundant. “I was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” she says. “Money isn’t everything and redundancy gave me an opportunity.”
Since then she’s had customers including Ian Rankin, Bill Turnbull and Tom Conti, and spotted emerged talent, often through the annual New Faces exhibition in January, including artist Graham McKean. She’s tipping Filly Nicol and Phil McLoughlin as budding art stars from the Christmas exhibition, but says there is something for everyone, especially as prices start from just £45.
The gallery building itself helps with her mission for accessibility. It was once a health clinic for gentlemen – “I don’t think they were being treated for flu,” Jan laughs – and then a pub frequented by ladies who had their prices chalked on the soles of their shoes, but its huge windows mean that visitors can see almost every painting before they set foot inside.
It’s all part of Jan’s plan to demystify art. People, she says, shouldn’t feel as if they need to “understand” art – it all comes down to what they feel when they see a picture, even if it’s nothing to do with what an artist meant when they created it. She once fell in love with a picture because it reminded her of the Clydeside shipyards where her beloved late father, Tom Gourlay, worked, but it was in fact a depiction of an industrial scene in the Ukraine. “It wasn’t about shipbuilding on the Clyde but that’s what resonated with me, that was what was making me emotional. And that’s what a painting should do, it should speak to you.”
Christmas 2011 runs until January 7. New Faces opens on January 28. The Leith Gallery, 65 The Shore, 0131-553 5255, www.the-leith-gallery.co.uk.