As The Scottish National Gallery prepares for the opening of brand new galleries dedicated to Scottish art, the redevelopment project is also shining a light on many beautiful, but lesser-known, works by Scottish artists that tell a rich story of the nation’s art.
One of the Scottish works that will be on display, by Edinburgh decorative artist Robert Burns, has a unique place in Edinburgh history as an ornate wall painting from Crawford’s tearooms.
Vibrant and colourful, The Hunt, previously known as Diana and Her Nymphs, shows followers of the Greek goddess of hunting, Diana, in a South American rainforest setting surrounded by wild animals, including white-headed capuchin monkeys; a Tanager magpie; and probably stylised ocelots or 'dwarf leopards'. The small green car at the bottom left was introduced to jokingly reference the artist’s passion for motoring.
Senior curator Helen Smailes retitled the artwork The Hunt, following extensive recent research, which included entering into discussions with Edinburgh Zoo as to which animals are depicted.
Edinburgh-born artist Robert Burns was first commissioned in 1923 to decorate Crawford’s Tea Rooms, located at 70 Princes Street, the building next to what used to be BHS, and directly across the road from the Scottish National Gallery.
Crawford’s was founded by William Crawford Senior, who opened his first bakery in Leith in 1813. They expanded with two factories in London and Liverpool to sell biscuits across the country, and by the 1920s had plans to open a series of tearooms. Crawford wanted the tearooms to be an ‘oasis of calm on bustling Princes Street’ and to rival the elaborate Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Willow Tearooms in Glasgow. Crawford planned to join the Princes Street and Hanover Street tearooms together, for an emporium featured restaurants, tearooms and grills.
The Hunt was located at the top of the staircase leading to the Ladies’ Dining Room. This space, furnished to look like a private drawing room, similar to Crawford’s own home in Morningside, was believed to have been designed with a theme of ‘the worship of women’, according to art historian Jane Lindsay. There was a Madonna and Child over the mantelpiece, and watercolours by Burns depicting four Greek goddesses - Athena, Aphrodite, Hera and Artemis, for strength, love, wisdom and purity.
The tearooms became a popular rest-break for Edinburgh residents to enjoy tea and shortbread in between shopping on Princes Street, and the work would shape the latter part of Burns’ career.
The elaborate Chinese Room was designed by Burns the following year, and was much more elaborate, with panels depicting the wreck of the Spanish armada off Scotland, and based on 18th century Japanese screens. The room also featured yellow and green silks from Jenners department store and furniture from Whytock and Reid’s Chinese range, which was then customised by Burns.
As a follower of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements, Burns’ designs were tropical, opulent, and inspired by mythology. Stepping into this space must have made an immediate impact on the senses.
Because David Crawford was after ‘unity and coherence’, Burns also designed menu cards, cake-stands, music programmes for the resident orchestra and labels and wrappers for items sold at the bakery.
Writer Edwin Muir described the effect such decorative schemes had on visitors to such Edinburgh tearooms in the 1930s. He said the ‘walls fling themselves at you: you are punched, pummelled and rolled over and over by a torrent of harsh noise and colour.’
Tricia Allerston, co-director of the Scottish National Gallery project, says: ‘This panel was purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland in 1987 and proved perennially popular with visitors who managed to find it in the old gallery space devoted to Scottish art. It is sure to be a keynote artwork in the new Scottish galleries when they open in 2021. We are placing it more prominently and contextualising it with other modern works of the same period.’
‘When I was a child I used to come up to Edinburgh on the overnight bus from London with my mother, who was from Edinburgh, and my brother. As a treat, we would go to Crawford’s tearooms in Hanover Street for breakfast on arrival as it always opened early. I hope that placing this beautiful work of art more prominently in the galleries will trigger the memories of those who visited the tearooms, and we would love to hear any stories that people may have, to add to the story behind this work.’
Burns, born in 1869, followed the Arts and Crafts movement. He studied in London and Paris, before returning to Edinburgh, where he was elected an Associate at the Royal Scottish Academy. He taught at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1908 to 1919, when he was appointed the first head of Drawing and Painting.
Some of the pupils he inspired were Anne Redpath, Eric Robertson and Adam Bruce Thomson. Yet he resigned from the college and the Academy by 1920. Burns also worked on the panels at Crawford’s with several of his students on the interiors, including Phyllis Bone, first female Royal Scottish Academician. With his success in commercial art, Burns bought 49 Northumberland Street, and converted the attic into a large studio space.
There are many more stories to be explored in the world's largest collection of Scottish art. Read more about the Scottish National Gallery's transformation.