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National Treasure: The Scottish Modern Arts Association is a temporary exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.


It tells the story of the Scottish Modern Arts Association, a pioneering organisation that set out to establish Scotland’s first national collection of modern art.


The exhibition features over 100 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, showcasing some of the finest examples of Scottish art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This online curation presents a selection of highlights from the exhibition.

15 artworks
  • Introduction

    The Scottish Modern Arts Association was founded in Edinburgh in 1907. Established by artists and their supporters, the organisation aimed to secure for the nation a representative collection of modern Scottish art. For more than 50 years it actively acquired work by leading artists of the day.


    The Association displayed its collection at venues around the UK and abroad. It organised events to promote contemporary art, and campaigned tirelessly for a dedicated gallery. These activities laid the ideological foundations for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.


    When the Association finally disbanded in the 1960s, most of its artworks were transferred to the City of Edinburgh. They are now maintained by the City Art Centre.


  • Moorland

    The artist James Cadenhead was one of the founding members of the Scottish Modern Arts Association.


    From its inception, the Association was concerned with improving the representation of Scottish art in national collections and supporting contemporary artists. At this time the National Galleries of Scotland did not collect work by living artists, a policy which many considered to be outdated.


    Cadenhead was a painter and printmaker associated with the Celtic Revival movement. Although he lived in Edinburgh for many years, he often drew inspiration from the rich countryside of his native Aberdeenshire. This large watercolour presents a picturesque autumnal scene. It was acquired by the Scottish Modern Arts Association in 1909.

    Moorland c.1895
    James Cadenhead (1858–1927)
    Watercolour on parchment
    H 113.1 x W 137.2 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Moorland
    Photo credit: Antonia Reeve / City of Edinburgh Council

  • Still Life

    Within months of its establishment, the Association began building an art collection for the nation. Acquisitions were funded by membership subscriptions and one-off donations from patrons. This still life by S.J. Peploe was among the first artworks to be bought.


    Although Peploe is now widely admired as one of the Scottish Colourists, this painting prompted controversy when it was purchased in 1907. Many people found its style too experimental. As the artist and curator Stanley Cursiter recalled, ‘the public could not understand it […] and, in any case, who wanted a picture of two bananas?’


    Fortunately, the acquisition was robustly defended by the Association. This official recognition gave Peploe’s early career an important boost.

    Still Life c.1905–1906
    Samuel John Peploe (1871–1935)
    Oil on panel
    H 26.7 x W 34.8 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Still Life
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Archibald Stodart Walker (1870–1934), MA, MB, MBE

    Archibald Stodart Walker was the first Chairman of the Scottish Modern Arts Association. Born in Fife, he initially pursued a career in medicine, before reinventing himself as a writer and critic in 1898.


    As Chairman of the Association, Stodart Walker was an outspoken and energetic advocate for contemporary Scottish art. In 1912 this portrait was commissioned by members in recognition of his service. It was painted by James Guthrie, one of the Glasgow Boys who had become President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1902.


    Upon Stodart Walker’s death in 1934, he bequeathed at least 30 artworks to the Association’s collection. These included pieces by Arthur Melville, James Cadenhead and John Henry Lorimer.

    Archibald Stodart Walker (1870–1934), MA, MB, MBE c.1912
    James Guthrie (1859–1930)
    Oil on canvas
    H 111.1 x W 77.5 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Archibald Stodart Walker (1870–1934), MA, MB, MBE
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Portrait of a Lady (The Green Hat)

    The Scottish Modern Arts Association focused on acquiring work by artists who were either living or had recently passed away. This portrait is by Bessie MacNicol, a Glasgow-based painter who died prematurely in 1904.


    MacNicol studied at Glasgow School of Art between 1887 and 1893, followed by a year in Paris at the Académie Colarossi. On her return to Scotland, her reputation grew rapidly, with her work selected for inclusion in many prestigious exhibitions. Her early death was a shock to the country; obituaries described her as ranking with the best of Scotland’s ‘artist sons’.


    This painting is thought to depict MacNicol’s sister Jessie. A larger version of the same composition was shown at the Munich Secession Exhibition in 1896.

    Portrait of a Lady (The Green Hat) c.1896
    Bessie MacNicol (1869–1904)
    Oil on canvas
    H 51.4 x W 36.6 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Portrait of a Lady (The Green Hat)
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Blackpool Valley

    In addition to Scottish works, the Association also collected modern art from other countries. Its intention was to present Scottish art within an international context, implicitly signalling its equivalent value. A more diverse collection equally provided a richer viewing experience for the Scottish public.


    Lucien Pissarro was the eldest son of the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, under whom he studied. In 1890 he left France and moved to London, subsequently helping to establish the Camden Town Group.


    Pissarro exhibited Blackpool Valley at his first solo exhibition in 1913. The painting was presented to the Scottish Modern Arts Association a decade later as a gift from the Contemporary Art Society.

    Blackpool Valley, 1913
    Lucien Pissarro (1863–1944)
    Oil on canvas
    H 54.6 x W 65.4 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Blackpool Valley, 1913
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • A Lancashire Village

    This rural scene by Glasgow-born artist William Wells portrays the village of Sunderland Point in Lancashire. When it was exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1909 it was hailed by critics as ‘the sensation of the year’. Recognising its quality, the Scottish Modern Arts Association acted swiftly to secure the painting; it was bought for the collection before the display opened to the public.


    For many years the Association operated an extensive loans programme, in which its artworks were made available for regional museums and galleries to borrow. As part of the scheme, this canvas travelled to numerous venues across the UK, raising the profile of Scottish art and the work of the Association.

    A Lancashire Village, 1908 1908
    William Page Atkinson Wells (1872–1923)
    Oil on canvas
    H 102.2 x W 127 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    A Lancashire Village, 1908
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • James Pryde (1866–1941)

    The Association added to its collection annually, with purchases of artworks supplemented by donations and bequests.


    When buying directly from artists, the Selection Committee often negotiated for discounts. It was felt that artists should accept payments below the normal market rate, given the perceived honour of their work joining a future national collection. While some artists resented this, others supported the Association’s stance.


    The painter Herbert James Gunn was seemingly among those who conceded to this arrangement. In 1924 he exhibited this portrait of fellow artist James Pryde at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. The Association bought it for £105, a sum significantly beneath its catalogue price of £400.

    James Pryde (1866–1941) 1924
    Herbert James Gunn (1893–1964)
    Oil on canvas
    H 127.7 x W 102 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    James Pryde (1866–1941)
    © estate of the artist. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Noontide, Jovie's Neuk

    Throughout its existence, the Scottish Modern Arts Association benefitted from an affluent membership. Private individuals regularly donated artworks to the collection.


    This luminous seascape by William McTaggart depicts the East Lothian coastline. It was gifted to the Association by John Waldegrave Blyth in 1944, the same year that he became the organisation’s fifth Chairman.


    Blyth was a successful linen manufacturer from Kirkcaldy, who was a keen art connoisseur and collector. He owned a large number of paintings by McTaggart and Peploe, in addition to works by J.D. Fergusson and E.A. Hornel. Serving as Chairman until 1962, Blyth was the driving force behind the Association’s activities in the latter decades of its history.

    Noontide, Jovie's Neuk 1894
    William McTaggart (1835–1910)
    Oil on canvas
    H 88.9 x W 97.8 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Noontide, Jovie's Neuk
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • The House on the Canal

    Women artists in the early 20th century faced many obstacles in pursuing professional careers. Access to formal training was often restricted, and some exhibiting societies barred women from joining, resulting in fewer opportunities for them to promote and sell their work.


    The Scottish Modern Arts Association was relatively enlightened in its approach to women artists. It acquired works by women from the outset, recognising their contributions at a time when they were barely represented in national collections.


    Josephine Haswell Miller was the first woman to be successfully elected as an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy. This striking view of Hermiston House near Edinburgh’s Union Canal was purchased by the Association in 1935.

    The House on the Canal c.1935
    Josephine Haswell Miller (1890–1975)
    Oil on canvas
    H 63.6 x W 76.3 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    The House on the Canal
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Fiona

    James Pittendrigh MacGillivray is best known as a sculptor, though his interests also encompassed painting, printmaking, photography and poetry. Portrait busts representing either allegorical figures or specific individuals were a central part of his sculptural practice. The sitter portrayed here has not yet been identified, aside from the name ‘Fiona’.


    Over the years, the Scottish Modern Arts Association acquired at least eight works by MacGillivray, including Fiona. Such additions enriched the collection, but the number of artworks held by the Association gradually became a double-edged sword. Without a dedicated gallery to display and store the collection, the organisation’s activities appeared increasingly unsustainable.

    Fiona 1916
    James Pittendrigh MacGillivray (1856–1938)
    Marble
    H 75.5 x W 47.6 x D 32.4 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Fiona
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • A Glass of Milk

    From the beginning, the Association aspired to create a gallery of modern art in Scotland. Taking inspiration from institutions like the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, members campaigned relentlessly to achieve this goal, seeking support from wealthy patrons and lobbying the government.


    The artist and curator Stanley Cursiter was a passionate advocate for a national gallery of modern art. Serving as Director of the National Galleries of Scotland between 1930 and 1948, he was a valuable ally for the Association. However, Cursiter did not always agree with its methods. He repeatedly criticised the Association’s tendency towards unrestrained collecting, pointing out that an unwieldy number of artworks would hamper efforts to secure a gallery.

    A Glass of Milk 1923
    Stanley Cursiter (1887–1976)
    Oil on canvas
    H 40.6 x W 45.7 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    A Glass of Milk
    © estate of Stanley Cursiter. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Black and White Checks

    Despite the Association’s aim of championing modern art, its relationship with the avant-garde was complicated. After an initially bold start, it struggled to keep up with the pace of creative innovation. Successive Chairmen voiced their scepticism of cutting-edge movements like Cubism and Surrealism, and acquisitions often erred on the side of caution.


    The Association developed a reputation for conservatism, creating a rift with more progressive elements. Yet, by continuing to focus on contemporary work, it still performed an important role supporting artists’ careers.


    This still life by Anne Redpath was purchased by the Association in 1952. A few months later it featured in her first solo exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London.

    Black and White Checks 1952
    Anne Redpath (1895–1965)
    Oil on canvas
    H 77.5 x W 83.8 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Black and White Checks
    © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • July Fields

    In 1960 the National Galleries of Scotland finally established the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Located at Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, the new gallery opened to the public that summer.


    By this time, the Scottish Modern Arts Association had abandoned its dream of creating a dedicated gallery for its collection, and was concentrating instead on lending out artworks to venues across the country.


    July Fields by Joan Eardley was one of two paintings that the Association lent to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for its inaugural display. The composition depicts a favourite subject of the artist: the wild scenery surrounding the fishing village of Catterline near Stonehaven.

    July Fields c.1959
    Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley (1921–1963)
    Oil on canvas
    H 52.7 x W 61 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    July Fields
    © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Kirn Pier, Winter

    During the late 1950s the Association’s fortunes went into decline. Unable to effectively demonstrate its relevance in post-war Scotland, its membership roll fell and funds ebbed away. Kirn Pier, Winter by Ian Fleming was the final artwork to be acquired for the collection.


    The foundation of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art revived hopes that the artworks might become the property of the nation. However, the National Galleries of Scotland declined the offer, judging that such a large gift of Scottish art would obscure the new gallery’s international remit.


    Forced to find an alternative home for its collection, the Association eventually reached an agreement with the City of Edinburgh. The artworks were transferred in 1964.

    Kirn Pier, Winter 1960
    Ian Fleming (1906–1994)
    Oil on canvas
    H 71.1 x W 91.9 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Kirn Pier, Winter
    © the artist's estate. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

  • Tristan and Isolde

    Over the course of its history, the Scottish Modern Arts Association amassed more than 300 artworks, spanning the disciplines of painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. John Duncan’s Celtic Revival masterpiece Tristan and Isolde is among the highlights of the collection, now cared for by the City Art Centre.


    The Association never fully achieved its original ambitions, but its legacy is still impressive. Its long-term advocacy for living artists supported many contemporary careers. Its persistent calls for a modern art gallery kept this aspiration on the national agenda for over 50 years. And its steadfast resolve enabled the creation of a truly unique collection, preserving for posterity some of the finest artworks of the era.

    Tristan and Isolde 1912
    John Duncan (1866–1945)
    Tempera on canvas
    H 76.6 x W 76.6 cm
    Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
    Tristan and Isolde
    Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council