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Edinburgh, Romanticism and the National Gallery of Scotland

  • Nick Prior


An explanation for the formation of the National Gallery of Scotland is proposed which affirms the priority of local conditions of cultural production. In the absence of a fecund tradition of art patronage in Scotland, the modernization of Edinburgh's art field in the early nineteenth century depended on the activities of civic elites. The Scottish model of art museum development resembled the later American model more than it did the earlier French one. What was particular to Edinburgh, though, was a strong form of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. The romantic landscape trope indexed the security of bourgeois power by the 1830s. But its own role was to act as a catalyst in the formation of collection-oriented and professional art institutions, and of a gallery going public in the capital.



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1 Duncan, C. and Wallach, D., ‘The universal survey museum’, Art History, 3 (1980), 4; Pointon, M., Art Apart: Art Institution and Ideology Across England and North America (New York, 1994); Waterfield, G. (ed.), Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain 1790–1900 (London, 1991).

2 Becker, H., Art Worlds (Berkeley, 1982).

3 Bourdieu, P., The Field of Cultural Production (Cambridge, 1993).

4 Ibid.; Malraux, A., The Voices of Silence (London, 1954).

5 Ibid.,86.

6 There are three points which evince the homologies between Scottish and American lines of museum development. Firstly, both countries had to deal with the desideratum of a burgeoning art tradition due, largely, to the patronage gap (see Goodrich, L., Art of the United States: 1670–1966 (New York, 1966)). Secondly, this gap was filled in both cases by private, individual interests. Initially, as in Scotland, America's art institutions were controlled by members of the traditional professions and the landed classes. But slowly patrician power and sensibility gave way to bourgeois rationality and control, with institutions of high art emerging as part of middle-class and upper middle-class formation (see Zukin, S., ‘Art in the arms of power: market relations and collective patronage in the capitalist state’, Theory and Society, 11 (1982), 423–51). Thirdly, the rise of substantial art museums – the National Gallery of Scotland in 1851, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, both in 1870 – came to rest less on direct state initiative and national control, and more on the interests and conflicts of civic, urban elites. Hence, whilst most art museums in America before 1910 were established at the local level as an urban cultural resource, with the city authorities providing and maintaining the buildings, in Edinburgh, it is possible to ground the siting of the National Gallery in a broader movement of urban civility (see Youngson, A.J., The Making of Classical Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1966)).

7 Nenadic, S., ‘Scottish fiction and the material world in the early nineteenth century’, in Cummings, A.J. and Devine, T.M. (eds), Industry, Business and Society in Scotland since 1700 (Edinburgh, 1994).

8 Devine, T. M. (ed.), Conflict and Stability in Scottish Society (Edinburgh, 1990).

9 Nenadic, S., ‘The rise of the urban middle classes’, in Devine, T.M. and Mitchison, R. (eds), People and Society in Scotland, vol. 1, 17601830 (Edinburgh, 1988).

10 Lang, P. H., ‘Music and the court in the eighteenth century’, in Fritz, P. and Williams, D. (eds), City and Society in the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1973), 151.

11 Enthusiastic acclaim greeted the RSA's annual exhibitions in the press and art journalism generally. ‘Our Art and Exhibitions are unquestionably the best things our country can boast’, enthused one critic, who continued, ‘Put together our yearly crop of books, forensic speeches, and pulpit preachments, consider them, and then pass into the Academy's exhibition, and admit that the artists are clearly our best and cleverest body of men’, Iconoclast, , Fine Art Pamphlets – Scottish (Edinburgh, 1860), 4.

12 Duncan, C., ‘Art museums and the ritual of citizenship’, in Karp, I. (ed.), Exhibiting Cultures (Edinburgh, 1991), 99.

13 Hook, A., ‘Scotland and Romanticism: the international scene’, in Gifford, D. (ed.), The History of Scottish Literature: the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1989), 317, 318, 316.

14 Lukács, G., The Historical Novel (London, 1962), 33.

15 Hauser, A., The Social History of Art, vol. III: Rococo, Classicism, Romanticism (London, 1962), 166.

16 Scott, W., Waverley (Edinburgh, 1814), 144–5, 175.

17 Williams, A. G. and Brown, A., The Bigger Picture: a History of Scottish Art (London, 1993), 133.

18 Withers, C., ‘The historical creation of the Scottish highlands’, in Donnachie, I. and Whatley, C. (eds), The Manufacture of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1992).

19 For a discussion of this tendency in English landscape pictures see Barrell, J., The Dark Side of the Landscape (Cambridge, 1980).

20 Royal Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts, Annual Report (18371838), 124, my emphasis.

21 A point which must escape development at present turns on the relationship between the ideas of Romanticism, especially the stress on novelty, self-expression and varied experience, and the aggrandizement of the art market, at this time. Romanticism may well have freed up the necessary motivations to purchase works of art by encouraging modern habits of consumption generally among the middle classes in Scotland (see Campbell, C., The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford, 1987)).

22 Royal Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts, Annual Report (18381839), 1617.

23 Fraser, W.H. and Morris, R.J. (eds), People and Society in Scotland, vol. II, 1830–1914 (Edinburgh, 1990).

24 Cited in Gordon, E., The Royal Scottish Academy 1826–1976 (Edinburgh, 1976), 5.

25 Hauser, , The Social History of Art.

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Edinburgh, Romanticism and the National Gallery of Scotland

  • Nick Prior


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