Sandy Moffat’s Archive: Railing against the Establishment

In this blog, archivist Kirstie Meehan looks back at a time when artists Alexander ‘Sandy’ Moffat (born 1943) and John Bellany took to the streets to exhibit their art.

If you had strolled past the Scottish National Gallery on a fine summer’s day in August 1964, you might be distracted by some artworks affixed to the railings. Bold in colour, large in scale and depicting the lives of working class people in the factories, pubs and bingo halls of Scotland, these works by Alexander ‘Sandy’ Moffat (born 1943) and John Bellany (1942-2013) represented a revitalised approach to figurative painting in this country. 

John Bellany (left) and Sandy Moffat, Castle Terrace, 1963.

While studying at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) between 1960 and 1964, Moffat and his close friend - fellow artist John Bellany - had become frustrated at the lack of opportunities to exhibit their art to the general public. So, they took matters into their own hands: in 1963, 1964 and 1965 they staged open-air exhibitions in the city centre during the Edinburgh International Festival, the first of which took place on Castle Terrace, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

In an interview recorded for the British Library’s ‘Artists’ Lives’ oral history project in 2005, Moffat recalled how the sympathetic minister of the Unitarian Church opposite kindly stashed the paintings in his church overnight, saving Moffat and Bellany from carrying them to and from their digs each day. Bellany recalls the actor Alec Guinnes, who was starring in Exit the King at the Lyceum Theatre nearby, putting a folded pound note in their collection tin each time he passed. The press response was positive, although the bold, figurative artworks challenged established tastes: the Evening News in August 1963 that ‘Their paintings are, for the most part, not the sort of thing to hang above the fireplace’. 

John Bellany with artworks on railings outside the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, 1964.

In 1965 Moffat and Bellany relocated their exhibition to the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy and National Galleries of Scotland buildings on the Mound. The location was deliberately provocative, and publicly rejected the traditional, institutional modes of selecting and exhibiting art in an attempt to engage with a wider audience. As Bellany said at the time, ‘We think open-air art is healthy. It reaches the kind of public we want to interest in our art and people looking at pictures in the open-air are more likely to throw away their built-in prejudices’.  

Sandy Moffat standing by one of his paintings outdoors, 1963.

Journalists were broadly enthusiastic. Tom Brown wrote in the Daily Express:

‘It’s the cheekiest bit of show-stealing in the Festival. Two young Edinburgh artists are thumbing their noses at the art Establishment – by hanging their paintings on the railings of the Royal Scottish Academy…”We thought me might as well set up in real competition” said bearded John. “So we applied to the city authorities for permission to use this site beside the R.S.A. and the National. We were a bit surprised when we got it”. Both artists have refused to submit paintings to the R.S.A. – which they described as “sick” and “useless”.'

Sandy Moffat has since had an impressive career as an artist, writer and teacher and his work is now held in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, University of Edinburgh and the Yale Centre of British Art. Bellany – who died in 2013 – is also represented in our collection and both artists are now acknowledged as major influences on the generation of Scottish painters who followed them. In 2022 Sandy kindly donated some material to our archive, including correspondence with Bellany and photographs, press cutting and documents relating to these three open-air exhibitions.  

A small selection of this material was on display in New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville at Modern One, which closed on 12th February 2023. However, if you’ve an interest in the subject and want to view the collection – or if you hold any material that you think might find a suitable home in the archive – do get in touch at [email protected]

We are very grateful to Sandy Moffat for his generous donation of archive material to National Galleries of Scotland in 2022. 

Blog by Kirstie Meehan, archivist of Modern and Contemporary Art.

26 January 2023