Lobsters, busts, and Paolozzi's socks: the view from the gallery floor

What is your favourite work and why?

Contemporary notions of the stuffy pomposity of high Victorian marble portrait busts are swept aside for me in the likeness of the painter Sir Joseph Noël Paton made by his (big) sister Amelia Robertson Paton (Mrs D. O. Hill).

Why do I like it? Not least because of the artistry, integrity and depth of knowledge of Paton himself, but also because of the fact that Amelia Hill was working as a successful sculptor in an age when women weren’t meant to hold that position in society.  Despite criticism of her chosen vocation from many quarters and very little by the way of formal artistic training, Amelia stuck with her career and produced many sculpted portraits of contemporary and historical figures in which the care-worn humanity of the sitters is evident. 

The far-reaching gaze of this proud artist and scholar are captured in this work and we are left in no doubt that Paton is the late 19th-century ‘warrior-poet’.  Amelia, from a family of Dunfermline weavers, took great pains to express in marble the textures of fabric, as seen in the plaid that Joseph Noël wears over his shoulder. The companion piece to this work is of another giant of Scottish art, her husband, the painter, calotypist and secretary of the RSA, David Octavius Hill.

Amelia Robertson Hill Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1821 - 1901. Artist 1872
Amelia Robertson Hill David Octavius Hill, 1802 - 1870. Artist and pioneer photographer 1868

If a tourist was coming to Edinburgh for 24 hours, which gallery/exhibition/piece would you recommend and why?

It is amazing what a fresh perspective rehanging a collection of artworks can bring.  Many of the Surrealist and Dada-ist artworks from the national collection have recently been re-presented on the top floor of Modern One, and they're looking spectacular in this new setting! There is a broad sweep of artists, styles and philosophies represented, and, alongside Miro, Magritte, Dali, Ernst and Picasso, are many less well-known practitioners. This rich aspect of the national collection is based on the acquisition of the private collections of Roland Penrose and Gabrielle Keiller, each of whom had the foresight to collect these radical artworks. However, the collection is not finite and has been added to across the years.

The role of women artists in the Surrealist movement has, in recent years, come more to the fore, and female practitioners are better represented in this new display. Initially seen by some as just the muses of male surrealists, female artists actually made an important, tangible contribution to the movement, and often appear through their work to be more in touch with the world of dreams so often dealt with by the surrealists. A recent acquisition, a work by Doretha Tanning entitled Tableau Vivant, depicts a giant lap-dog embracing a limp human figure. It is at once fascinating and absurd; where kitsch meets classical and where the bizarre juxtapositions of a dream-like state are revealed.  Other women artists represented include Leonora Carrington, Toyen, and Edith Rimmington. 

Salvador Dalí & Edward James Lobster Telephone 1938 © Salvador Dalí , Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS, London, 2023
Dorothea Tanning Tableau vivant 1954 © Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive, New York and DACS, London 2023

Tell us something no-one else knows about the galleries? What is the best kept secret? 

It’s not exactly a best kept secret but….If you want to know what type of socks the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi wore, we have them!

Only a fraction of our collection is on display at any one time. However, access can be arranged to view or study almost any object in the holdings. The collection extends well beyond painting, sculpture and prints - there are also holdings of books, archives, furniture and audio-visual material. Each successive generation of keepers, directors and curators have had their particular interests and diversions which have added some eclecticism to the collection. In addition to this, we are also often given artists' correspondence, documents, tools and equipment, along with the artworks. In this way, the galleries are a fantastic source of information relating to artists' personal, technical, biographical and social circumstances.

By Allan Lennie, 11 March 2020