They were queuing down Schoolhill to get into the high jinks at Aberdeen Art Gallery this weekend despite there being no exhibition.
One hundred and thirty years down the line and the gallery is finally getting a major extension and refurbishment. It is not without controversy for the rooftop addition seems oddly out of kilter with the grand, sombre pink Corrennie and white Kemnay granite solidity of the weel kent facade on Schoolhill.
The unique granite columns in a rainbow of colours, most from local quarries, topped with gilded Doric capitals are a reminder of an industry that will forever be associated with Aberdeen and the northeast of Scotland, and that the gallery was first established to promote local industry and craft.
But this blog is not about architecture. That is a dreary enough topic in the realm of Aberdeen City lately but a meandering, though short reminiscence of what the gallery has meant for me for I’ll miss it over the next couple of years.
It used to sit next door to Gray’s Art School. Not that the gallery has moved but the art school has, and while attending Saturday morning classes there as a youngster I suppose I was first introduced to the gallery.
It was a very different place from how it looks today. For example the once much loved sculpture court, filled with figures I think copies of ancient classical statues, was a source of infinite fascination for kids, and probably adults. I spent hours drawing one or other of them. I think we had names for one or two but can’t remember what those were. Can’t recall either when it was decided the sculptures were too out-of-date and were relegated to the knackers yard but they were sorely missed. Their departure opened up a large hall for temporary exhibitions but I never felt the same about them as I did about the maze of ghostly figures that invited you in to wander around and up to them to stretch out a tentative hand to trace the smooth plaster of a beautifully formed limb or take their icy cold fingers in yours.
Then came the 1970s and the space was populated with abstract sculptures equally tactile and hugely attractive for wee bairns for some of them would not be out of place in a children’s playground.
I always had more conservative tastes as far as the gallery’s collections were concerned. My favourite pictures were upstairs in the green room where a cluster of tiny portraits were exhibited on vertical display boards that you could open up. Several were by the Aberdeen artist George Reid and the translucency of his skin tones are breathtaking; on a par with Ramsay’s.
It too disappeared, into storage as the gallery changed. What did stay in that room was the hugely popular William Dyce picture, Titian’s First Essay in Colouring. The colours, appropriately enough are sumptuous and it is one of those paintings you can spend a long time staring into for its detail and magic. Aberdonian Dyce was part of the pre-Raphaelite circle and while the gallery has several by the better-known of the movement’s artists, it is the Dyce that I prefer. Here in the green room was Millais’s portrait of a young girl, Bright Eyes, with its striking resemblance to my daughter so that it became a must-see whenever we were in the gallery.
Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of a child Going to School is simply charming. An everyday scene from a French village the sparsity of the background means it is the elaborate headgear worn by the child as well as its sweet face which are the captivating elements within it.
And the Goose Girl or as it’s not known, To Pastures New. This wonderful study by James Guthrie is such an striking image and the colours so subtle and perfect and quiet and ideally pastoral.
Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious I used to find oddly captivating in an understated way.
The shapes fascinated me. George Braque too was one of my introductions to cubism. But a visit was never complete without a peek at Landseer’s Highland Flood for few could resist reading this vast picture like a book brimmed with tragedy and drama.
There were the chairs. Fittingly the gallery chairs were very different from any we had at home. Very designery and modern (though in fact by the time I was going into the gallery they were old designs), black leather and chrome: squashy soft seats that invited visitors to sit and stare into the fountain, once it was added and which used to have a Barbara Hepworth piece at its centre.
I never took to the café which replaced the old teashop with its cake stands filled with sandwiches and fancies. There was something quintessentially sophisticated and worthy about the old place which the cafe never achieved, always found it a noisy, uncomfortable space with far less attractive food than most other places nearby and not a patch on any other museum I’ve visited.
One upon a time Aberdeen did have a museum dedicated to, well, Aberdeen. Housed in the dunks of the Cowdray Hall it was a long narrow space, all dark varnished wood and, as I remember though I expect misremember, filled with dusty glass cases you had to peer into and were filled with all kinds of this and that to enthral young minds.
My favourite of the most recent acquisitions is the figure of a Chinese girl holding flowers aloft as a salute. Can’t remember what it’s called or who the artist is but there’s something highly attractive, in a literal sense, to this piece.
There were no such attractions on show this weekend. The hundreds who waited patiently to get in were the attraction in a sense, putting their mark on its walls, it is their building after all and joining in the fun and games, and cake eating on offer. By any standards it was a huge success. When it re-opens in 2017 I hope there will be something similar, to entice back the regulars and coax in some who are still daunted by the exterior grandeur of the place to persuade them art galleries and museums are or should really be about them and be palaces of fun and education.
Don’t know if the old closing bell will survive the revamp. Maybe it will. The old wooden revolving doors went several years ago, thought to be a deterrent to potential visitors. Dyce (Aberdeen International) Airport doesn’t appear to have that problem with its revolving door but there you go.
The marble staircase is going much to the disapproval of some. No idea what will happen to the marble.
Two years is a long time but there are other museums available, not enough, but we are in Aberdeen after all. Meanwhile you can catch and play around with some of the collections at Aberdeen Quest http://www.aberdeenquest.com/home/home.asp