Issue 204
July/August 2018

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Aug 20, 2018
The Ultimate Travel Guide
Scotland's Stations - Northern Books

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    Artists' gallery for the artist's town

    LAST AUTUMN, I snooped around Kirkcudbright's old town hall, which was having a £ 3.1 million make-over to transform it into an art gallery. Outside were workmen, who told me it would open in the summer. 'The Monarch will be there!' said one.

    Noticing my puzzlement as I imagined Prince Charles turning up, he added: "The Monarch of the Glen! You'll recognise it when you see it. Everyone does!"

    I arrived after the gallery's opening on June 9, pleased to see 'The Monarch' on the wall, but not for long as it's touring Scotland to celebrate its purchase for the nation last year.

    Like other art used to advertise commercial products, Landseer's Highland stag, in being associated with Dewar's whisky, is often seen as kitsch, which is unfair. The artist's superb depiction of this proud beast serves as a prophetic symbol for Dumfries & Galloway's, (particularly Kirkcudbright's) new enterprise.

    This 'regional gallery of national significance' has been a long time coming. In 1999 some enthusiasts proposed a venue in Kirkcudbright to showcase its extensive art collection. By the following year, Kirkcudbright 2000 Ltd., as these people called themselves, helped by D & G Council, staged summer art shows in the former town hall to promote their campaign.

    As Scotland's Artist's Town, whose famous artist's colony, stemming from the 1880s, held its own with those of Newlyn and St. Ives, Pont-Aven in Brittainy and Worpswede in Germany, Kirkcudbright deserved a decent building. Helped by cash from bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund, work on the old town hall began in December 2016.

    Comprising four floors, the ground space is the main attraction. Confronted by paintings on dark, red walls, soft lighting and four south-facing sash windows covered by blinds, I felt briefly I was approaching a cluttered antique shop, but quickly realised it was a treasure-trove of work created by a dazzlingly talented community, accompanied by concise biographical details.

    Artists are shown chronologically; the Faeds, painting from the mid 19th century; Thomas adept at portraiture and John with miniatures, followed by John Copland, George Henry, David Gauld, Samuel Peploe and A E Hornel, the latter, already well-sung in Kirkcudbright, represented by only two paintings.

    A number of historical, decorative and craft items are displayed under glass: Charles Oppenheimer's memorabilia, William Hanna Clarke's palette, Bill Johnston's cut-outs and decorative chairs, Jessie M King's tea set and illustrated books and Tommy Lochead's ceramics.

    Curator Anne Ramsbottom and her team are to be congratulated for giving prominence to female artists' work: the animal figures of Phyllis Bone (1896-1972), first female member of the Royal Scottish Academy; Lena Alexander's (1899-1983) pastel still lifes and her portrait of Jessie M King, the subject's colourful dress, suggesting King's fondness for decorative art; Anna Hotchkis (1885-1984) who taught in Peking in the early 20s.

    Emphasis is given to Jessie M King, married to E A Taylor (1874-1951) who settled together in Kirkcudbright. King was renowned for her Greengate Close Coterie where she established artists' studios, introducing to Kirkcudbright a younger generation of Edinburgh artists: Anne Redpath, Dorothy Nesbitt, Dorothy Johnstone, Cecile Walton, A. R. Sturrock and William M Johnston. They also invited Glasgow artists.

    It's not easy converting a Victorian sandstone edifice into an ultra-modern centre displaying 300 works of fine art and 80 craft and decorative items. Ayr-based ARPL architects, with expertise in design for 'historically sensitive environments', fitted the bill, after their £ 1.5 million upgrade of Scotland's oldest theatre, the Dumfries Theatre Royal.

    "The hardest part," explained Gordon Fleming of ARPL, "was integrating equipment for the environment system. It was hard to fit ventilation ducts into such a building. An old structure's fabric behaves differently to a contemporary one; in terms of controlling air, e.g. ventilation, a sash window is different to a modern one."

    Fleming is pleased with their conversion of the building's depressing 1950s interior. By opening it up, they made the rooms lighter, designing-out the existing fire escape system, which employed the main staircase. Introducing a second flight of stairs, which serves as a fire escape, ARPL retained the original Victorian staircase. The result is superb.

    Gallery Two, on the first floor, is for temporary exhibitions. Showing until mid July, '40/40 Vision' celebrates 40 years of WASPS studios with artwork from studios as far-flung as Orkney, Skye, Selkirk and Kirkcudbright.

    It's fitting that WASPS artists feature in the opening events as, in 2010, they opened 14 artists' studios in Kirkcudbright's High Street, echoing Jessie M King's initiative with her Greengate Close studios.

    The mezzanine, a new level, hosts events for all ages; on the third floor is the Mitchell Gallery, another exhibition space.

    The café on the first floor, with light streaming in from its tall windows and an understated, but stylish decor, has the best coffee in the southwest and excellent food.

    As with other art collections like the Burrell in Glasgow, the Kirkcudbright (Stewartry) Collection, one of Scotland's most significant, badly needed a permanent home to protect and display the town's art heritage.

    More than a gallery, this venue tells the story of a group of individuals who married and painted each other, befriended and lived together and even created articles as diverse as pottery, furniture, silver and paintings.

    This is the joy of visiting the gallery. I came away inspired and energised by the creative spirit of this remarkable community.


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