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Issue 30 - Stirling stuff (Smith Art Gallery and Museum)

Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006

 

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Stirling stuff (Smith Art Gallery and Museum)

Museums and galleries rank among the most visited attractions in Scotland, but what makes them so appealing? In the first of a new series, Roddy Martine visits the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling to find out

Art galleries and museums can be dull places, but not when you have an inspirational individual in charge. One such individual is Dr Elspeth King who in the past was not only responsible for revitalising the People’s Palace in Glasgow, but virtually created the fascinating Abbot’s House in Dunfermline.

Since 1994, however, she has been at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling, where she has brought about the transformation of an already remarkable collection into a visitor-friendly showcase.

Who else, when promoting a spectacular exhibition of landscape paintings by the Victorian artist Joseph Denovan Adam, famous for his depiction of Highland cattle, would have thought of adopting a young Highland bullock called Hamish and installing him on a patch of grass at the gallery entrance? Saved from slaughter due to the BSE crisis by the Friends of the Smith and his young friends, Hamish is currently employed as the Smith’s external relations officer and his CV can be viewed on the Museum’s website.

And then there was the ambitious exhibition based on the life of Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s great renegade freedom fighter, timed to coincide with all the hype which surrounded Mel Gibson’s widely inaccurate, but enormously entertaining Hollywood blockbuster, Braveheart.

The town of Stirling in Central Scotland is sometimes described as ‘the brooch which clasps the Highlands and the Lowlands together.’ However, as visitor traffic headed north following a tour of the old castle, the Stirling Smith, which lies in its shadow, was often overlooked. All that has changed now.

The Smith Institute, as it was then called, first opened to the public in 1874. It was an occasion for great celebration in Stirling, and the shops in the town closed at 12 noon to allow people to attend the opening. Sadly its benefactor, the artist Thomas Stuart Smith, who had conceived the project with a grant of £5,000, had died five years earlier.

Nevertheless, the core of the gallery’s remarkable collection of fine art is based around Thomas Stuart Smith’s legacy and consists of approximately 1,000 works in oils, watercolours, prints, drawings, and etchings, and a small collection of sculpture.

These date from c1670 to the present day, and are examples of Scottish, English and European art.

The Smith also has one of the most important and least known Scottish history collections with many remarkable pieces such as prehistoric whalebones, medieval pottery, renaissance furniture, the world’s oldest football and curling stone, Jacobite memorabilia, artefacts from the seven important Trades of Stirling, ancient tartans, and collections from Stirling’s Tolbooth.

Some of the best known pieces from the art collection are Vosterman’s Oldest View of Stirling, Alexander Nasmyth’s oil of Stirling Castle, Cosmo Alexander’s portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the collection of oil sketches by Sir George Harvey P.R.S.A (1806-1876), depictions of Robert the Bruce and de Bohun by John Duncan, a portrait of William Wallace by an unknown 19th century artist, and one of R B Cunningham Graham by John Crealock.

Childhood through the ages is represented by a toy collection, christening gown and other household items. Adoll’s house made during World War II is one of the gems of the collection. Many aspects of World Wars I and II are represented through the gifts of local people. The presence of prisoners-of-war is represented by the wall panels from Castlerankine Internment Camp at Denny, painted by the German Otto Laub.

The museum also houses examples of decorative art, textiles, costume, ceramics, glass, numismatics (coins and tokens), weapons, ethnography (artefacts from other cultures), archaeology and natural history (including specialist collections such as herbarium specimens, rock and minerals).

Innovation is part of Dr King’s visitor attraction strategy. During 2001 and 2002, initiated and led by the Friends of the Smith, Ailie’s Garden was opened at the rear of the building. The Garden was named after Ailie R Maclaurin (1913-2000), a great gardener and lifelong Friend of the Smith. Her garden here was created to “encourage wildlife, for the study of nature, and to demonstrate composting and waste management.” Among the attractions of the two-acre site are a willow tunnel, a storytelling circle/ performance area, an outdoor chess and draughts board, a giant caterpillar sculpture, a mini labyrinth, and a woodland area.

Two mosaics depicting Stirling’s glorious past now decorate the entrance pavement.

The mosaics are decorated with thistles, and one has the ancient word for Stirling – Strevelyn – next to a castle depicting the town on a map from 1450.

Also featured is a representation of the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) with the Scottish and English armies facing each other above a river with a quotation from Robert Burns, written when he visited Stirling in the late 18th century.

The current main attraction celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of George Buchanan, Preceptor to James VI, a playwright, author of History of Scotland, and a pamphleteer against Mary Queen of Scots.

This exhibition includes a number of events and discussion opportunities, with lectures from experts in the field of Scottish and European history.

Dr King’s belief has always been that in order for it to be understood, Scottish history needs to be brought vividly to life. This interpretation belongs as much to the visual arts, both ancient and modern, as it does to the atefacts on display.

Personally, I have always found a visit to the Stirling Smith to be an unforgettable experience, and I can recommend it with all my heart. What’s more, admission is free!