'This has been an unusual couple of years," says the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's chief curator, Patrick Elliott, musing on the extent of the gallery's latest exhibition, which fills the entire top level of the Modern One. From Picasso linocuts to the surrealist imaginings of an Edinburgh civil servant; from seminal casts made of one patch of sand at different stages of the day by the Boyle Family to idiosyncratic, quizzical British bronzes from the 1950s; from a stunning Joan Eardley seascape to an early Paolozzi fish sculpture - the SNGMA's New Acquisitions make for impressive and surprisingly coherent viewing.
Loading article content
"It's partly serendipity," says Elliott of the extraordinary number of interesting new works that have come the gallery's way in the past two years. SNGMA's own budget is roughly £50,000 a year, "so there's no point going out and identifying de Chiricos," he says. But money is, in many ways, only a small part of it. Elliott admits that he spends quite a significant amount of his time meeting collectors and "persuading them that the logical place to leave their collections when the time comes is here, with us".
He has also been trying to address the significant "holes" in the SNGMA collection. "I think, when the Gallery was founded in 1960, there was a feeling that certain elements of Scottish art were very well represented in major Glasgow collections, and so the gallery concentrated on building an international collection, particularly Picasso and Matisse."
Now the SNGMA is trying to fill in the Scottish gaps, and all the home-grown Surrealists, Modernists and other "-ists" thrown into the shade of the more enduring Colourist movement.
Those holes have, to a large extent, been filled by two important bequests in the past two years, responsible for the larger part of the gallery's new additions. Henry and Sula Walton, the late prominent psychiatrists whose collection of Scottish and international artists amounted to some 250 works collected after the couple arrived in Edinburgh in the 1950s, bequeathed their entire collection to the SNGMA on Henry's death last year. Elsewhere, collectors and philanthropists Jean and Eric Cass decided to downsize their extensive collection by offering it to seven non-London galleries through the Contemporary Art Society.
"That, really, is what triggered the idea of doing a show. We wanted to celebrate these collectors and their bequests, and also encourage others to give," says Elliott.
The rooms are arranged thematically, which gives an indication of just how wide-ranging the new acquisitions are. In among more well-known names - including the gallery's first Alasdair Gray - five Edwin G Lucas paintings stand out for Elliott for their sheer absurdity. A cockeyed clown, an abstracted roomscape, an enigmatic night bird; all were chosen after a surprise phone call from the amateur artist's son in 2010, from "a lock-up outside Edinburgh" that held the little-known works of the civil servant who channelled Picasso "and then did something completely weird with it".
"It's absolute bonkers," says Elliott, "and to think that someone was doing something like that in Scotland in 1945. There's nothing like it. A lot of young artists are painting this kind of thing now."
Close by, the gallery's first Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh - designer wife of Charles Rennie - hangs next to a large-scale John Bellany, before a hugely impressive room showing the Tide Series (1969), one of the first works in the Boyle Family's World Series of works that cast locations chosen by asking members of the public to throw a dart at a world map.
And there is a remarkable collection, too, of Picasso linocuts from the Walton Collection - on the basis that one can never have enough Picasso, and the SNGMA certainly, Elliott says, doesn't - printed between 1951-64 during the time that Picasso moved to Vallauris in the south of France to concentrate on ceramics. The prints range from advertisements for bullfighting to ceramics exhibitions, printed in a reduced palette of colours, becoming more complex with his Portrait Of A Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger (1958), showing Picasso feeling his way in a new medium.
It is a very satisfying collection and a remarkable tribute to the generosity of collectors who have bequeathed their work to the gallery, whether from large-scale inheritance bequests or the more unexpected invitations to "come down and pick up three paintings" that occasionally, says Elliott, produce the most surprising gifts of all.
New Acquisitions, National Gallery of Modern Art: One, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org) until March 1. Phil Miller makes a rare visit to the Boyle Family's studio in tomorrow's Sunday Herald