ONE of the big art-related events of the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival was the return visit to the Royal Scottish Academy of modern paintings owned by Niels Onstad and his wife, Sonja Henie (above).

“To anyone who is sceptical or unsure of modern art,” wrote our art critic, “I would like to suggest that a visit to the R.S.A. Galleries might go far to make him appreciate, even, perhaps, to understand it.

“The collection begins with work by painters (Bonnard, Matisse, Munch) who lived as long in last century as in this, but whose work, with that of Klee and Picasso, and the younger painters, Soulages, de Stael, and Karl Appel, forms the base of the great tower of abstract or near-abstract expressionism that has followed.”

The collection exhibited the owners’ personal taste, he added – “a consistent bias towards freedom of expression, indeed of spirit, that not only makes viewing a pleasure but provides a logical progression from the older to the new”.

Niels Onstad, a shipowner and art collector had been a football player before, in 1935, establishing a shipping company with his brother. He moved to America in 1940, to work for the Nortraship company.

During the war, the company “managed the large Norwegian merchant fleet outside of the German-controlled waterways and contributed decisively to the Allied efforts during the war”.

In 1956 he married Sonja Henie, who had been a championship-winning Norwegian figure skater before launching a second career in films; by 1940 she was one of Hollywood’s best-paid actors.

In 1959 the couple decided to make their extensive art collection available to the public, and in 1961 they donated the funds to build the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, near Oslo. (The above war-time quote comes from the HOK website.)

The centre was opened, to acclaim, in 1968. Sonja died of leukaemia the following year, aged just 57; Niels himself died, aged 69, in June 1978.

Read more: Herald Diary