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City Art Centre views Scottish art from A to Z

Down in the bowels of Edinburgh's City Art Centre, the ongoing renovations have borne fruit in a refurbished lower ground-floor gallery.

The ceilings may be low and the walls windowless - this is a basement after all - but with airy new lighting, this bright, quiet space is just the right size for a short ramble through the Art Centre's permanent collections.

The opening exhibition itself, literally an A-Z of Scottish art or, perhaps more accurately, of Scottish artists, is an idiosyncratic jaunt through our artistic past as evidenced in the CAC's collection. Fifty works have been chosen from an archive which spans roughly 4500, giving some idea of the task that faced Dr Helen Scott and her team.

"It was hard leaving things out," says the curator, who had to tread a fine line between interesting juxtapositions and ugly clashes when picking which works would sit best in such a long alphabetical line.

"It's not a definitive A-Z. We're just trying to capture a snapshot of the sorts of things we hold in the collection. People may come in and say, 'You don't have anything by Bellany or Raeburn', but it's difficult because there are so many artists to fit in, and certain letters are very popular among surnames," she says, pointing out that, for example, the CAC's John Byrne collection is currently on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for its forthcoming retrospective. "For reasons of space, we've had to allow ourselves a maximum of just three artists from any one letter."

Walking around the exhibition, I'm reminded of the time I tried to expand my knowledge of contemporary fiction by picking strictly one author for every letter of the alphabet, only to find my rigorous system scuppered early on by the slew of interesting novelists whose surname began with B. In contrast, Scott manages the strict parameters of her Sisyphean endeavour rather better. Here is a reflection of Scottish art's rich and quirky history from John Kay's Ten Edinburgh Notables - a window onto a curious 18th-century nook between realistic portraiture and caricature - to Doug Cocker's rough-hewn Coda, a neat box set of rustic wood miniatures.

There are gems for most tastes here, from FCB Cadell's luminous and lovely seascape Iona to Joan Eardley's engaging charcoal sketch Philip The Fat Boy (a forthright title if ever there was one), the sitter a child who used to frequent her Glasgow studio. Dotted around are a breezy William MacTaggart, depicting the beach at Machrihanish; a late and brooding Samuel Peploe still life; and an early, engaging portrait by Allan Ramsay, depicting the young Katherine Hall of Dunglass as Diana the Huntress. Alongside these, if not literally, the CAC's most recent acquisition, an abstract by the late Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, painted when she was in her late 80s.

There is joy too in the less well-known works, whether it is Sir William Allan's pen and ink sketch, Gala Day At Abbotsford, a quick sketch of a "do" at Sir Walter Scott's house, or John Wilson Ewbanks's Thirteen Studies Of The Old Town, a series of intricate and miniature early 19th-century ink drawings of Edinburgh as once was. More small yet fascinating peeks into history include William Lizars's 1822 print depicting the much-recorded landing of George IV at Leith, the port's roofscapes dotted with serried bands of onlookers no doubt wondering what, exactly, a reigning monarch looked like, given that it had been nearly 200 years since the last one had visited.

It seems churlish, then, to draw attention to what one will not find, yet this is an exhibition which barely ventures into the late 20th century, let alone the 21st. As to alphabetical rigour, well, I couldn't find a Q, or so I thought, but perhaps I wasn't thinking far enough outside the white cube.

"Our X, for example, is [John] Maxwell," Scott tells me later, smiling, tongue in cheek. And as if by way of justification, she adds, "Well, we already had enough Ms, and people always ask to see the Maxwells…"

A-Z: An Alphabetical Tour Of Scottish Art, City Art Centre, Edinburgh (0131 529 3993, www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk) until November 16

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