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Issue 48 - Georgian Gem

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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Georgian Gem

Charles Douglas visits Broughton House in Kirkcudbright.

This is neither a stately home nor a mansion of impressive architectural significance. Yet it remains an outstanding Georgian gem within the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland, and an absolute must to visit for anyone venturing along Scotland’s southern Solway Firth coastline.

The immensely appealing town of Kirkcudbright lies on the sheltered wash of the mighty Solway Firth, and was once the capital of the old Stewartry of Kirkcudbright (a term applied to Crown property and historically administered by a Steward instead of a Sheriff). It was also a Royal Burgh, which gave it authority to trade with ports outside of Scotland, and with its castle and busy harbour, Kirkcudbright accordingly prospered over the centuries.

On the back of this, Broughton House, a fine 18th century residence in the High Street, was purchased in 1740 by Alexander Murray, Provost of Kirkcudbright, member of parliament, and husband of Euphemia Stewart, daughter of the 5th Earl of Galloway.

The Murrays of Broughton and Cally were a wealthy and entrepreneurially successful Kirkudbrightshire landowning family who created the town of Gatehouse-on-Fleet and, to fund this and, the magnificent Cally House (now Cally Palace Hotel) which they built as their principal residence, Broughton House was sold in 1756 by Alexander’s son.

Thereafter, it was occupied by various families while the town continued to thrive on its harbour, and towards the end of the following century, inspired by the light and charm of its setting, it, some would say, inevitably became a magnet for a small but fashionable community of late-Victorian and Edwardian painters .

These included Sir James Guthrie, Jessie M. King, W. Y. MacGregor, S. J. Peploe and E. A. Taylor, all of whom were associated with the Glasgow School, an influential circle of Scottish modern artists and designers who emerged in the late 1870s. Not least among them was the colourist E. A. Hornel, although it has to be said that he never sought to be identified with either Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Edward Atkinson Hornel was born of Scottish parentage in Bachus Marsh, New South Wales, Australia in 1864, but after his parents relocated to Scotland, grew up and lived for virtually all of his life in Kirkcudbright. Having studied art in Edinburgh and Antwerp, he enjoyed an immensely successful career as a painter of children, landscape and flowers and, in collaboration with his friend and contemporary George Henry, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, created what is probably his best known work, The Druids Bringing In The Mistletoe(1887) which can be seen at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove. The two artists visited Japan together to study decorative design, and where Hornel’s work was dramatically influenced by the rich patterns and brush strokes that he encountered.

And to give some idea of how successful he became, he purchased Broughton House in 1900 from the sale of only one painting. By then a wealthy man, he employed his friend, the Glasgow-based architect John Keppie, to create a studio for him, and later added a handsome gallery. From childhood, Hornel had been intrigued by the history of his native land and soon began amassing a collection of 25,000 books mostly relating to the south west of Scotland and which happily remain in situ in the library he created. Also on display are his furniture and china collection.

Far from being an artistic recluse, Hornel entertained his artist friends lavishly and was exceedingly active in local affairs, as well as serving on the Town Council. He chaired the local Decorations Committee for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and advised on the design of the town’s War Memorial. In his latter years, he sat on the bench as an Honorary Sheriff, and for three years was on the county’s education committee. His negotiation with an American philanthropist led to the building of a gymnasium at Kirkcudbright Academy.

However, he never married and lived at Broughton House with his sister Elizabeth (“Tizzie”). When he died in 1933, he left her its life-rent and contents requiring simply that they be preserved “for the benefit of the people of the Stewartry and visitors thereto.” After Elizabeth Hornel’s death in 1950, the National Trust for Scotland, assisted by The Friends of the Hornel Art Gallery, took over the bequest and the house was seasonally opened to the public.

Broughton House, in my opinion, has to be one of the National Trust for Scotland’s most triumphant acquisitions since so much of its original charm and character has been successfully retained, subtly enhanced by the artist’s work itself. In 2006, following two years of restoration, it was a well deserved recipient of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyor’s Conservation Award. Neither pretentious nor over restored, this is the eclectic and welcoming home of an outstanding Scottish artist whose living space and work, I suspect, will be revisited time and again in the future.

To the rear of the house is a wonderful and secret garden which nestles onto the banks of the River Dee. Low clipped box hedges create a formal structure, and within are herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees, including the gnarled wisterias and abundant hydrangeas planted by Edward and Elizabeth Hornel themselves. Enthusiasts will have to wait until the Spring to view the interiors, but with the mild Kirkcudbright climate, I would recommend at trip to the garden even in February.