Tricia Allerston, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of European and Scottish Art, and Co-Director of ‘Celebrating Scotland’s Art’: The Scottish National Gallery Project, shares the artworks that have been on her mind during lockdown.
When we were sent home and normal work wasn’t possible, I thought I would spend the time finishing a book and researching and writing wall texts for our new Scottish displays. Well, I’ve been reading and writing (and talking) a lot about art, but not in the ways expected. And it has been a hugely fascinating journey!
In spring, I often give evening talks for whisky retailers, over from the USA to tour distilleries. They have a special interest in Benjamin West’s dramatic painting ‘The Death of a Stag’ as the legendary exploits of Colin Fitzgerald (and the stag) form part of their company's foundation narrative. I enjoy these sessions in the gallery; the group is always interesting and I invariably learn new things about the picture through its connection with their very different world.
This year, the tours were cancelled. Instead of standing in front of West’s majestic tour-de-force in the impactful setting of the National Gallery, I introduced the painting to the whisky aficionados at home, giving my first live-stream talk. On this occasion I learned even more about their attachment to West’s picture, since I co-presented with their master whisky blender whose connections with the company date back to 1972.
Just before my first home broadcast I was approached to write a 120-second film script on Phoebe Anna Traquair. We had planned to publish a short film celebrating her birthday on 24 May, but the colleague scheduled to do this was no longer available. Researching the script was a joy. Who knew that, in August 1897, when Traquair painted wall panels at Kellie Castle near Pittenweem in Fife, she would go, as many locked-down folk are currently doing, for a bicycle ride before breakfast? Come rain or shine, the East Neuk of Fife is beautiful in August and I imagine her cycling through fields of ripening crops catching glimpses of the Firth of Forth. But producing - and home-recording - a 120-second piece (only 300 words) about a fascinating artist who lived a full, active life and produced a very broad range of art is no easy feat…
This confident Scottish woman hangs high at the National Gallery, above Tiepolo’s glamorous fantasy, The Finding of Moses and opposite Raeburn’s pendant portrait of her spouse. During lockdown a digital colleague queried her name - Jean or Jane? – and highlighted inconsistencies between the names of several married women published on the Gallery’s walls and the website. Such queries are usually addressed by a different colleague.
Answering this query allowed me to focus on a small, intriguing group of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women whose portraits often hang in the Gallery. Adam (related to the Adam architectural dynasty) lived separately to her husband when her portrait was painted, yet hangs alongside him in perpetuity. She is known by her own surname, though married, as I am myself, whereas several of the other women’s husbands added their wives’ more established names to their own.
I see this busy late-nineteenth-century image of the National Gallery whenever I switch on my laptop. Not long before Covid-19, the National Galleries updated its computer systems, removing our ability to choose a screensaver from the collection, but allowing us to create a personalised icon. So I did, and this image represents me.
The painting features in the book I've been working on. It is a view into the great central room of the National Gallery during one of the copying days reserved for artists and students. When the Gallery first opened in 1859 Thursdays and Fridays were set aside for artists and students to copy the artworks on show, an important element of art education and practice at that time. And here we see twice the number of women artists, than men, taking up that opportunity. Fascinating.
An unexpectedly stimulating aspect of this weird situation, is the way that work and home life seamlessly merge. Nuggets about artists are discussed over lunch (Phoebe Traquair riding a bicycle around Fife in the 1890s; new discoveries about Joan Eardley’s life in Catterline. My interest in Norse mythology wasn’t prompted by rediscovering medieval sagas as I cleared our boxroom to work from home, it came from watching Thor films based on Marvel comics….
Our daughter regularly talks us through the (rather elaborate) plots of newly discovered Netflix series on our evening walks. And my ears recently pricked up on hearing about the web series featuring a dysfunctional family of teen superheroes, seven of whom, adopted as babies, were given numbers instead of names.
I fear I’ll never look at David Allan’s group portrait of Sir John Halkett and Mary Hamilton’s family, in which each of the fourteen children are numbered, the same, ever again…