Picture Galleries outside London

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Picture Galleries outside London


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


The Glasgow Collections

Visitors should not be deterred by the exterior and ground floor of the Glasgow Museum at Kelvingrove, which may be the least enticing entrance to a picture gallery in the whole of Britain. It is an architectural dinosaur in its look of outdated menace, hideous in sooty sandstone and meaningless turrets in the Scottish baronial style of the nineteenth century: all stark grime and smoke-charred pinnacles set in an arid park. The ground floor is a museum which, as Dylan Thomas once said, `should be in a museum'. There are stuffed animals, Japanese armour, Eskimo artefacts and a huge stray red sarcophagus.

Glaswegians are not fond of display. On the first floor of the grim fastness is hidden what may well be the supreme British collection of Italian Renaissance paintings outside Greater London, gathered for the most part with uncommon discernment by a Glasgow coach-builder, Archibald McLellan, who spent much more than he could afford on the purchase for his native city of a collection which included works by Botticelli, Giorgione, Dosso Dossi, Bartolommeo Veneto, Bordone, Domenichino, Carlo Dolci and Guardi. To these he added a munificent gift of Netherlandish and French works, which included one of the last organ-swells of the late Gothic, St. Victor with a Donor, by the Master of Moulins. Sadly, McLellan died in debt, and many of the thrifty Glaswegian senators were reluctant to redeem the collection from his estate with 44,500 [pounds sterling] of civic money, but a small majority prevailed, and the corporation's art gallery was established in Sauchiehall Street in 1855 and transferred to adjacent Kelvingrove Park in 1902. The Dutch and Flemish sections were augmented by benevolent nineteenth-century citizens and more recent philanthropists, including Sir William Burrell, who donated the first of his two collections to the Kelvingrove Gallery. McLellan, a tradesman enamoured of pictures but with few resources apart from his own perception, had assembled a gallery with which the richest of princes could not vie.

His pictures are remarkable not merely as examples of renowned masters added for the sake of the score, but for their intrinsic vividness in both subject and treatment. In Botticelli's Annunciation the archangel hurls himself in arrows of light towards the Virgin Mary, who accepts her honour and her future tribulations with a glance of shocked obedience. Seraphs sail in to adore the new-born Christ in Francia's tiny Nativity. Giovanni Bellini's adolescent Madonna steadies her infant as he holds her thumb in one hand, and with the other hand blesses mankind. A sad-faced Mary upholds the child as he weakly attempts a similar benediction in Catena's Madonna With Two Saints.

Vincenzo Catena, an associate of such scholars as Cardinal Bembo, worked in partnership with Giorgione from 1506, which may account for the panel's Giorgionesque opulence of colour against a dark background, as well as the strange air of lassitude also noticeable in several of Giorgione's works, such as the Adoration of the Kings in the National Gallery, London. Catena's painting is mysterious, since one of the saints who flank the Madonna is bare breasted. Is the androgynous saint on her other side, long considered to be St. Mary Magdalene, in fact St. John the Evangelist with a jar of unguent in his hands? John and the Magdalen were both to entomb Christ, which may explain the Madonna's grievous look. Courtesans in Venice often appeared with naked bosoms (as in the paintings of Bartolommeo Veneto in Frankfurt and Palma Vecchio in the National Gallery, London), since they were not held in check by the Venetian sumptuary laws. Bartolommeo's Courtesan wears a veil and wreath of myrtle, like the left-hand saint in Catena's panel. Did the learned artist represent the Magdalen as one of the sumtuosi meretrici of Venice? Alternatively one may accept the righthand saint as the Magdalen and the lefthand saint as St. …

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