IN what promises increasingly to be a winter of discontent one seeks long and hard for reasons to rejoice.
One such, however, is the reopening later this month of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh after its closure for the past few years. The NPG, which first opened its doors to the public in 1889, had long been in need of tender love and care and it will be a pleasure to renew acquaintance with it and its treasures.
Readers with fully-charged memories may recall that there was a proposal at the end of the last century to close the gallery, supported by the then-director of the National Galleries who once derided Scottish art as “inferior”. There was even a suggestion that it should be moved to Glasgow, which was received in Morningside and environs with the kind of welcome reserved for burglars. In comparison the furore over the trams is mere flimflam. At a meeting I attended the director, who was in favour of the proposal, was lucky to escape without being throttled by a fur stole. After that there was no question of anything untoward happening to the NPG. As a demonstration of the power of the bourgeoisie it was awe-inspiring and enlightening. It was also indicative of the esteem and affection in which the gallery was held. This ought not to have been surprising for its collection is peerless. As its name suggests, its raison d’etre is portraits of Scots who down the ages have made a “distinctive” contribution to Scottish life. Of course, the early examples it holds are of the kings and queens and others who supped with silver spoons. The 18th century, however, saw a shift in emphasis and tone which has continued to the present.
Thus one finds the likes of the notorious murderers Burke and Hare alongside scientists such as Alexander Fleming and James Black who saved lives rather than ended them. Under the courageous stewardship of Duncan Thomson, portraits of more popular figures were commissioned, including Danny McGrain, Gavin Hastings, Sean Connery and Mick McGahey, some of which caused predictable controversy.
Nothing, however, in the history of the National Galleries has prompted quite the consternation as the insistence by a then member of the NPG’s staff that Sir Henry Raeburn did not paint the portrait of the Rev. Robert Walker, known to all as The Skating Minister. Like the threatened closure of the Gallery it divided the city and drew interest from afar. Raeburn’s usurper was Henri-Pierre Danloux, a hitherto little-known Frenchman who lived in Edinburgh for a short period during the 1790s when the portrait is believed to have been painted.
The evidence in favour of Danloux was entirely circumstantial; that against Raeburn would not have detained a jury for any longer than it was necessary to show due respect for the law of the land. For example, Raeburn knew the Rev Walker well and was clearly a close friend. Moreover a paper trail linked the two men and their families and the iconic painting. There was no such connection between Danloux, or none that was ever produced. All that could be said with any certainty is that Danloux’s stay in Edinburgh coincided with the minister’s. Everything else was pure conjecture.
Be that as it may, the love of a good story somehow got in the way of sober fact and a consensus grew that Raeburn did not paint the picture. Even worse, the National Galleries, rather than properly examining the evidence, bowed to the bluster of the doubters and rewrote the caption to The Skating Minister, questioning its attribution to Raeburn. Recent research, it reads, suggests it “may have been” the work of Danloux.
And so, shamefully, ignorantly, stubbornly, things remain. The Skating Minister was lately removed from the Scottish collection, which is housed in a claustrophobic basement in the National Galleries on the Mound, and placed in a room devoted to 18th century art. It ought, of course, to be the centrepiece of the restored National Portrait Gallery, which lies in the same street in the New Town in which it was painted, and any hint that it was produced by anyone other than Raeburn should immediately be removed.
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