20 AUGUST 1988, Page 38


Edinburgh's conqueror

Gavin Stamp views the transformation wrought by a pushy Englishman at the Scottish National Gallery

Edinburgh is not Manchester. When Timothy Clifford, maverick director of Manchester City Art Gallery, prophet of the 'Historical Approach to the Display of Paintings' and scourge of the dropped ceiling, the white wall and hanging on the line, was appointed Director of the Nation- al Gallery of Scotland in 1984, he arrived full of ideas for putting things right on the Mound. He should perhaps have been more circumspect. Clifford's ebullience and determination may have won over even the militants of Manchester Town Hall, but the Edinburgh establishment is altogether a more formidable enemy. Af- ter all, people who have managed to fail to build an opera house after four decades of the Edinburgh Festival are not likely to take kindly to a pushy Englishman who wishes to change things quickly.

But Clifford has won. Now is the time for Edinburgh gracefully to accept defeat and embrace this conquering hero, for what he has done on the Mound makes Edinburgh even more important than Manchester in the museum world and, yet again, puts that other National Gallery in the south to shame. The two long suites of principal galleries in William Henry Play- fair's Ionic temple of the arts which were formally reopened after restoration this week are a triumph. Roman numerals of bronze glisten on walls of maroon felt which are double-hung with Scotland's magnificent national collection, while on the green carpets stand pedestals for busts, candelabra and fine pieces of furniture to complement the canvasses. This is how galleries ought to look. More to the point, this is how these galleries used to look, as can be seen in two Late Victorian paintings now on display. The problems of restoration here were similar to, although interestingly different from, those faced by Clifford at Manches- ter. At the latter institution, it was a matter of recreating the original polychromatic decorative painting of Charles Barry's en- trance hall while exorcising the later Victo- rian top-lit galleries of dirty white hessian and hanging the paintings densely on rich fabrics. The result served to disprove the post-war modernist art-historical ortho- doxy that demands that works of art be considered in clinical isolation, and showed how fine architecture and fine art enhance each other.

What is interesting about the art gallery on the Mound is how comparatively au- stere its interiors originally were. This last great monument of the movement that made the Scottish capital into the 'Athens of the North' was the response to a difficult How galleries ought to look: William Henry Playfair's original 1859 designs restored brief, as Mr Clifford and the architectural historian Ian Gow describe in an admirable illustrated history published by the Gallery this week (The National Gallery of Scot- land: an architectural and decorative his- tory, £5.95). For the building — begun as late as 1850, when the Greek Revival was completely out of fashion in England - had to house both National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Playfair there- fore designed two parallel but separate suites of top-lit, octagonal galleries, each with its own entrance. Only in 1910 did the National Gallery acquire the whole build- ing, when the Academy moved to Play- fair's adjacent but earlier Greek Doric Scottish Institution. Both buildings were then adapted by W. T. Oldrieve, an unsung hero of Edwardian Classicism. At the National Gallery, he respected Playfair while creating a new entrance hall and upstairs galleries.

When the building first opened in 1859, the interiors may have seemed mean: the walls of the National Gallery were covered m felt while those in the Academy were of simple painted boarding. But this was not only owing to economy. Playfair's enfilade of top-lit rooms separated by arched open- ings goes back through Soane's Dulwich Picture Gallery to George Dance's famous Shakespeare Gallery in London of the 1780s. Red, also, was the traditional colour for art galleries and Turner hung his own paintings against crimson damask — a fact wilfully ignored by those responsible for the new Turner Wing at the Tate. In Edinburgh, the precise shade of claret used for the walls was chosen by David Ramsey Hay, 'the first intellectual house painter' and decorator of Walter Scott's Abbots- ford, who had demonstrated by experi- ment that this was the best background for Old Masters. Hay also chose the green carpet, a contrast in accordance with con- temporary colour theory.

Playfair's galleries were largely left alone by Oldrieve. They were only changed in the 1930s when grand Corinthian columns were made to frame wider openings be- tween the rooms. Clifford has simply res- tored Playfair's elliptical arches and put back the original wall and floor coverings. The real problem in any art gallery is lighting and the new fittings hanging from the octagonal vaults have the negative virtue of being less obtrusive than those the PSA installed in the recently restored E. M. Barry rooms in Trafalgar Square. Real liberties have only been taken in the two smaller octagonal rooms tucked be- tween the main galleries and originally designed for miniatures. These have been given opulent marble floors inspired by those painted by Poussin, to whose work one room, lit by a pseudo-oil lamp, is dedicated.

It is over other interiors that doubts about the Clifford approach may arise, for he has also transformed a depressing suite of modern mezzanine galleries. The walls of the oval approach staircase have been painted like stone and covered with classic- al busts on corbels. The result is more successful than the galleries themselves which have been given architraves, dadoes and rich fabric covering in strange contrast to the lumpish modern ceilings above. If all this looks like the creation of a smart interior decorator for an American client, it can be justified by the domestic scale of the rooms and the resulting sympathetic appearance of the paintings — even Im- pressionists do not have to be hung on dirty white as they are in London. But the real worry is that Clifford's principal argument has always been about historical authentic- ity and these rooms are not now authentic. If Playfair's work of the 1850s deserves respect, why not that of the PSA of the 1970s? Otherwise it is all a matter of taste: and taste changes.

Timothy Clifford's many enemies sug- gest he is more interested in the decorative arts than in paintings. If that is true, it may be no bad thing as he has nevertheless managed to make splendid new acquisi- tions while those curators who care only for paintings usually succeed in spoiling the architecture in their care. Clifford has transformed the National Gallery of Scot- land in less than two years and at a cost of only about £1 million. Despite all the money, talent and good intentions in Lon- don, that other National Gallery has yet to achieve anything so impressive.