The term “art critic” implies a negativity which by and large doesn’t exist in the writers who sally forth into the art world to create vivid pen portraits of the art they see and the artists they meet.

Art critics tend to be art lovers. Not fighters. So it was with the late W Gordon Smith. Smith wrote about art for the likes of Visual Arts Scotland and Scotland on Sunday in an accessible and upbeat fashion from 1980 until his death in 1996. But writing was just one of the many strings Smith had to his creative bow. Author, poet, dramatist and photographer, he was also a prolific and pioneering filmmaker, who made more than 100 Scope and Spectrum arts documentaries for BBC Scotland from 1969 to 1980.

Along the way, Smith became an avid collector of art and enthusiastic supporter of artists. The “W” at the start of his name was not an affectation as many thought, but a bid by the Edinburgh-born Hibernian fan to differentiate himself from Hibs and Scotland winger, Gordon Smith, a contemporary. Smith – the fan, not the footballer, started his career in journalism with the Dalkeith Advertiser and then the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, so there was a rational mind at work here.

The two men agreed that the “W” would differentiate between their names when they appeared in print. Smith met his second wife, Jay Gordonsmith, when she applied for a temporary job with his production team at BBC Scotland in Edinburgh in the late 1960s. She became his wing-woman. First in work and then in life. Their collecting motto was simple; they both had to love the work and spend no more than £1000 on it.

It was never intended to be a collection, and after a purchase had been made, artists were usually invited to the home they shared at Inverleith Row, Edinburgh, to view their work. One of the artists, Annette Edgar, recalls: “The first time I went to their house, Gordon told me in his big booming deep voice that I was going to be sitting next to a handsome six-foot-tall guy. It turned out, I was… in the shape of a huge painting of mine of a running figure which he’d bought at the old 369 Gallery in Edinburgh.

“Gordon was very unassuming but very, very knowledgable about art. And Jay was a lovely woman who was a great support to him. They were very good at rooting out people and artists and they became very good friends of mine. I was devastated when he died. As were so many of the artists he supported.” Gordonsmith kept on buying art after her husband died. In her final years, she was one of the most generous patrons of the visual arts in Scotland, making donations to the main exhibiting organisations in Scotland, all of them artist-run.

The Royal Scottish Academy, The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, Visual Arts Scotland and the Society of Scottish Artists are the main beneficiaries of her bequest, which provides a ten-year guarantee of funding for prizes and residencies. Some of the artists in the Smith’s collection; Jack Vettriano, John Byrne, Peter Howson, George Wyllie, John Bellany and Avril Paton, are well-kent figures beyond the confines of the Scottish art world.

But to those who follow the comings and goings of the Scottish art scene, the roll call reads like a who’s who of mid-20th century – early 21st century Scottish art. Hugh Adam Crawford? Check. Pat Douthwaite? Check. Alexander Moffat? Check. James Morrison? Check. Craigie Aitchison? Check. Margot Sandeman? Check. Willie Rodger? Check. The stellar list goes on and on. In the course of his art critic years, Smith visited several exhibitions a week and his eye was keen and constant.

There are several portraits of Smith in the collection, including ones by Moffat and by Hugh Adam Crawford (Joan Eardley’s tutor at the Glasgow School of Art). Both were subjects of TV programmes he made about them in the early 1970s. Highlights from the unique collection are now available to view – and buy – online in a new exhibition staged by Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery. While it’s never ideal viewing paintings and ceramics on a small screen, it’s a glorious sight to see an array of paintings, original prints and ceramics of this quality under one digital roof. Broadly-speaking, the couple were drawn to colour, figures, nature, humanity, humour and fine draftsmanship.

From John Byrne’s exquisite Painted Banjo (made in his “Patrick” period), to a wee scrapyard sculpture of a dog by George Parsonage, and on to early gender-fluid and heavyset figurative paintings by Heather Nevay, there is much to enjoy. Proceeds from sales will assist in fulfilling the Smith’s legacy of promoting art in Scotland by supporting the RSA’s Residencies for Scotland programme and bursaries for Foundation Year students at Leith School of Art.

The digital show is accompanied by a beautiful new publication, designed and edited by Sigrid Schmeisser on behalf of the Jay Gordonsmith Estate in conjunction with the W. Gordon Smith Award Trust. Bound in a rich yellow cloth cover based on Craigie Aitchison’s Indian Crucifixion, which hung in the Smith’s hallway, this 400-page book is crammed with information about the couple and their collection. Alexander Moffat – a Trustee of the W. Gordon Smith Award Trust – has written a fascinating essay about his friends’ lives and legacy.

Siobhan McLaughlin has written around 160 short biographies of artists whose work the couple bought. These are interspersed with a selection of Smith’s meticulously typewritten exhibition reviews from the 1990s.  They were given to Schmeisser by Gordonsmith in two folders labelled A–M and L–Z; a detail she would later use on the book cover. Schmeisser first met Gordonsmith at her home in 2018 to discuss creating the publication. She explains: “In our conversations, it became clear that their contributions to the arts couldn’t be reflected by merely reproducing the art collection. Equally it was Jay’s strong view that the focus of the book should not be on themselves only, but on the artists.

The agreed book design concept was that it should appear as if it was Jay’s and W. Gordon’s own artists and artworks reference book – which one could have found on their own bookshelf.” The resulting book – like the couple’s collection – is a joy. Moffat sums it up at the end of his essay like this: “Their collection stands as a chronicle of a passionate life in the arts and as a treasure trove of essential insights into the art of our times.” An Exhibition Celebrating the Lives of W. Gordon Smith and Mrs Jay Gordonsmith, Open Eye Gallery. It continues online throughout February. Mrs Jay & W. Gordon Smith: Art Collection, published by The Jay Gordonsmith Estate in conjunction with the W. Gordon Smith Award Trust. £20 (excluding post & package). Contact the Open Eye Gallery on for more details.


Critic's Choice


Like journalists, artists have always acted as sentries to the first draft of history. With this in mind, curators at Glasgow Museums have been collecting material to record and represent the Covid-19 pandemic for future generations.

Its latest acquisitions are five new artworks by artists from India. Each details a different artist’s reflection on Covid-19. 

The new collection, a combination of works on cloth and on paper, showcases traditional folk and tribal craft from different regions in India. 

The artists; Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, Bahadur Chitrakar, Kalyan Joshi and Heera Devi, are at the forefront of their individual folk and Adivasi traditions. Each has exhibited their works internationally and have received national recognition.

Vangad is one of India's best-known folk and tribal artists, renowned for his detailed Warli paintings. This new work, measuring almost one square metre, has been made with a bamboo nib on specially prepared cloth. His story, about Covid-19's impact on mankind, is intertwined with issues of urban vs rural lives and environmental issues of significance to the Warli people. In the centre is a blue circle, which portrays the Chinese lab from where the virus is supposed to have spread, little dots show the virus’s miniscule size.

A second work on cloth is by Chitrakar, a leading patachitra artist, from west Bengal. In Patachitra, stories are painted as frames one below the other. The Patuas gradually unfurl the scrolls, presenting the story through song. The coronavirus has been personified as a violent demon. This acquisition will include a film of the song being performed.

A colourful Phad painting by Joshi, who comes from a lineage of Phad painters dating back to the 13th century, centres around India’s national flower, the lotus. The overarching message of lockdown STAY HOME is spelt out with human figures in the fourth piece, created in Oriya pattachitra style. 

The final piece by Devi is a small, but exquisitely detailed ink drawing on paper has been made in the Kachni style of Madhubani art, in black and white, with minimal use of the colour red for effect.

Glasgow Museums intends to showcase the works as part of existing displays on South Asian art, in temporary exhibitions in the Fragile Art and Cultural Connections galleries in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and in proposed future displays reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic.