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Issue 101 - The Arts House

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018

 

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The Arts House

Charles Douglas visits a remarkable contemporary arts centre housed in a Victorian mansion

On the outskirts of Arbroath, north of Dundee on Scotland’s east coast, stands a genuine arts and crafts treasure.

Although developed as a private home overlooking the North Sea, Hospitalfield House has served as a hub of creativity and contemporary art since the beginning of the19th century. It was the dream and joint achievement of Patrick Allan-Fraser, a talented and innovative Victorian artist, and his extremely wealthy and obviously very indulgent wife. They had a vision to make this a place to support artists of the future and by 1902 Hospitalfield had opened as a residential art school.

Records reveal that the Hospital of St John the Baptist was established in the 13th century by the Tironensian Benedictine monks to support the pilgrims visiting their vast Abbey in Arbroath. This medieval building stood on the spot of the existing substantial Scots Baronial mansion of two and three storeys that exists today. The scale of the Victorian Picture Gallery takes its proportions from the medieval building that was once on this site: two vast tythe barns commissioned by the monks so that they collect grain from the farmers working the land that surrounded the site.

In 1655, Hospitalfield was sold to the Reverend James Fraser, Minister of Arboath Parish who, aside from his devotions, aspired to the status of a country gentleman. Thereafter, the estate was passed down through the years to members of the Fraser family, culminating in Elizabeth, a double heiress who also inherited Hawkesbury Hall, near Coventry.

In 1843, Elizabeth married Patrick Allan, a 30-year old artist and illustrator who had been born in Arbroath, the son of a weaving merchant. Showing early talent, Patrick had been apprenticed to the Trustees’ Academy of Edinburgh and, after travels in Europe and basing himself in London, he had caught the attention of the Edinburgh-based publisher Robert Cadell.

Cadell had been Sir Walter Scott’s publisher and invited Patrick to illustrate a new edition of The Antiquary, but the project fell through. Nevertheless, it was known to both of them that Scott had visited Hospitalfield in 1813 and he had been sufficiently impressed by the 14thcentury barns to locate The Antiquary in a fictional house called Monkbarnes. Possibly it was on Patrick’s return to Arboath in 1939, or perhaps they had known each other from childhood, but it was around this time that he became engaged to Elizabeth Fraser of Hospitalfield. On their marriage four years later, Patrick hyphenated his surname with that of his wife and, with a shared artistic sensibility, they set about remodelling their existing red sandstone home.

Using local craftsmen, they converted an 18th-century barn into an art gallery, adding a large wing and a five-storey turret complete with crow-stepped gables, crenallated parapets and oriel windows. Notable public rooms are the decorative leather-walled dining room, the splendid picture gallery and adjoining cedar room and ante-room. These feature a wealth of wood carvings of international importance, Romanesque dado arcading, and a Hammerbeam ceiling.

Throughout its lavish rooms, the house is hung with rich paintings, many of them commissioned by Patrick himself, including portraits from his London friends in The Clique art group, which was formed in the 1830s by Richard Dadd. Robert Scott Lauder’s The Trial of Effie Deans (1840) hangs on the main landing.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1873, Patrick moved to live in Italy where he was elected President of the British Academy of Arts in Rome. He and Elizabeth had no children but, before his death in 1890, they had endowed The Patrick Allan-Fraser Trust to establish Hospitalfield House as an art college ‘for the assistance and encouragement of young men not having means of their own, who shall be desirous of following up on one or more of the professions of painting, sculpture, carving in wood, architecture and engraving’.

Since then, for over 100 years, Hospitalfield has remained true to its purpose: dedicated to contemporary art and ideas; a place to work, study, learn, visit and enjoy. It was initially difficult to get the momentum going financially but with the disposal of land, it became possible for Scotland’s very first residential art college to come into being in 1901. By 1930, the pressure to update the constitution happily led to strong partnerships with Scotland’s four art schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.

In 1938, the artist James Cowie began a 10-year tenure as Warden of Hospitalfield, a position he passed on to similarly influential artists and teachers. A community of alumni can now be traced across generations, all of them fortunate enough to spend time in this inspirational place. Notable Scottish artists who have worked here over the 20th century include Joan Eardley, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Alasdair Gray, Wendy McMurdo and Callum Innes.

It was during the Allan-Fraser’s time together that Hospitalfield first became a magnet for the many young artists of that era, and the same practice is encouraged to this day with resident artists allowed to make use of the principle rooms.

Hospitalfield's director, Lucy Byatt, was previously director of Spike Island in Bristol and moved to become Head of National Programmes at the Contemporary Art Society in 2008. Joining Hospitalfield in 2012, she has since launched a public programme that supports new production and commissioning opportunities for contemporary visual artists.

This, she says, is woven into her strong commitment to the care of, and engagement with, Hospitalfield’s fascinating heritage and collections. A future plan has been established for the Trust which will see significant capital investment, the restoration of the existing historic buildings and the design of new facilities to produce a productive and sustainable future.

Sir Mark Jones, a former director of the Museum of Scotland and, from 2001 to 2011, director of the V&A Museum, has taken over the Chairmanship of the Trustees, who are actively fundraising to this end with particular emphasis on the restoration of the historic 19th and very early 20th-century studios that were built to accommodate the original art school.

 

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