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Issue 18 - The Spirit of Scotland at its very best

Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005

 

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The Spirit of Scotland at its very best

Roddy Martine talks...

As a cradle for the visual arts and treasure trove of antiquities, Scotland looks more impressive than ever nowadays. First there was the opening in July of the spectacular playfair extension to the National Galleries of Scotland on the mound, in Edinburgh. And next we have the breathtaking extension to the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum in Glasgow to look forward to.

I use the word “breathtaking” because I have just enjoyed the privilege of an exclusive “hard hat and wellie” tour in the company of Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, chairman of the Kelvingrove Refurbishment Appeal, and Alan Horn, the director.

Twenty years ago, when I worked in publishing in Glasgow, I often sought refuge during my lunch hour in this imposing, red stone building. But only by stepping out onto the rooftops last week, was it possible for me to appreciate the full scale and intricacy of this magnificent Victorian edifice, erected for the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901 and opened as a museum the following year. 103 years on it has weathered the passage of time with immaculate dignity. I wonder how many of our contemporary architectural wonders will do as well?

Now Lord Macfarlane himself is a remarkable man who follows in the tradition of the great figures of Glasgow’s merchant past, benefactors and patrons of the arts, men of the calibre of Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate; Lord Bilsland, the baking tycoon, and Sir William Burrell, the shipping philanthropist, all of whom, through their own endeavours, achieved most of everything they set out to achieve during their lifetimes. A former chairman of the drinks giant United Distillers, not to mention Guinness and various other public companies, Lord Macfarlane has consistently upheld and supported the interests of Scottish culture, not least in this, his present commitment. A man of diverse interests – a “kenspeckle” figure they would say in the Scots language – it is interesting to note that although of a different political persuasion, it was His Lordship whom the maverick Scottish Labour Member of Parliament Tam Dalyell chose when invited to nominate someone to present him with his recent Lifetime Achievement Award. That is the spirit of Scotland at its best.

And it was undoubtedly through Lord Macfarlane’s influence that Dr Tom Hunter, the Scottish entrepreneur who built Sports Division into one of the UK’s premier sports retailers, has signed up to a gift of up to £5 million over 20 years to support the creation and ongoing development of the Kelvingrove’s new Campbell Hunter Education wing, which will include a multimedia gallery and extended education suite and pavilion.

Kelvingrove is the most popular UK museum outside of London with an annual through put of over one million visitors. Now for Scotland that is an awful lot of visitors, only equalled by Edinburgh Castle. You may wonder why, but aside from works by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dali, among the art collections on display are some of my favourite Scottish paintings – Sam Bough’s Mail Coach, not to mention Francis Cadell’s The Orange Blind, and John Pettie’s Two Strings to her Bow.

On one occasion, over 20 years ago, I was taken down to the storage area and was astonished to discover the quantity of paintings and items not on display. The refurbished building, I am told, will provide an increased display space of 35 per cent, thus allowing 50 per cent more of the collection to be seen. With collections of arms and armour, anthropology and archaeological finds, is it any wonder that people are drawn here from far and wide?

With just seven months still to go in the building schedule, the renovation work is remarkably both on its £27.9 million budget and on schedule. The internal stone-cleaning, employing a revolutionary new technique, is subtly revealing the original Giffnock sandstone’s blonde hues, and highlighting the often unnoticed names of the great Scots inscribed around the building. Through removing the earth from the foundations, an entire floor of extra gallery space has been opened up.

Scheduled for March 2006, the reopening of Kelvingrove promises to be a great day not only for Glasgow, but a great day for Scotland. The objects and images that will go on display in the 22 new galleries not only embody the social identity of the Scottish nation, but they serve to remind us of a time when Glasgow was truly the “Second City of the Empire.”