Tuesday 11 September 2018


It was strange being back in Edinburgh. I lived there (if lived is not too strong a word) for a year in the early Seventies, and had only been back on a couple of flying visits. The intervening years, it seems, have brought big changes: parts of the city that I remember as dismal, menacing and derelict are now smart, colourful, thronged with tourists and bursting with cafés, restaurants, trendy bars, artisan bakeries and all manner of hipster havens (amid the tartan tat). As for the Royal Mile, tourists on the more popular stretches form an all but impenetrable mass of cosmopolitan humanity. It's like St Mark's Square or the Riva degli Schiavoni in high season – except that, alas, it's not Venice but craggy old, windy old Edinburgh. Frankly, it's not my kind of city.
  However, there are compensations  – not least the Scottish National Gallery, which is now high on my list of favourite art galleries. When we visited, about a third of the building – including all the Renaissance galleries – were closed for refurbishment, but there was more than enough to enjoy in what remained open. The gallery now proudly displays a recent acquisition that can truly be called iconic – Landseer's The Monarch of the Glen. The original is startlingly fresh, full of light and depth and plein-air sparkle, quite unlike the gloomy image familiar from the countless prints that once hung on the walls of seaside boarding houses. It's a painting with tremendous presence, and the gallery is right to be proud of it.
  Hanging near the Monarch is a huge and characteristic work by Frederic Church, a view of Niagara Falls from the American side. This mighty canvas is a dizzying tour de force that does full justice to the grandeur of its subject – and it's all the more cherishable for being the only large-scale work by Church in any public collection in the UK. And, in the same room as the Church, is one of Constable's finest paintings, a dazzling view of The Vale of Dedham.

   I was happy to discover a top-notch Tiepolo, The Finding of Moses – a symphony in Venetian colour and light – and one of Bellotto's very finest views of Verona. Also a wonderful, Rembrandtesque Portrait of a Young Man by Jan Lievens  – and, right up my street, another Dutch painting, Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose Branch, by William Gouw Ferguson, a Scottish painter who worked for some years in Holland.
  The poster girl of the gallery is, with good reason, Lady Agnew, whose large portrait by Sargent is a glorious specimen of his free brushwork and luminous colour – an absolute stunner.  Nearby hangs a portrait that is every bit as impressive, in its very different way – Degas's very informal but cleverly designed portrait of Diego Martelli, who, viewed from a strangely high angle, sits to one side of the picture, staring out of it with arms folded, looking bored.
In the same room as these two hang two Van Goghs (a spring orchard and a summer olive grove), two fine Cézannes (The Big Trees and a study of Mont St Victoire), a couple of Monets, a late and free Degas study of dancers, and Gauguin's famous (and strange) The Vision of the Sermon: you know the one – this one...


  1. I distinctly remember being struck by that Sargent as well, an amazing painting. Sargent's depth of character is much underrated in my opinion.

  2. I agree, Craig – he's so dazzlingly skilful that his depth is easily overlooked.

  3. The Sargent is glorious. His stock is rightly very high and rising.