For the second year in a row, the Scottish Nation Galleries’ major exhibition running during the Edinburgh Festival has been a patched up affair. It features a few interesting, borrowed works but is padded out with paintings that can be seen throughout the year, plus lots of mediocre pieces and copies, advertised as ‘as a spectacular celebration of Spanish culture seen through the eyes of British artists and art collectors.’ Probably a mixture of curator’s arrogance that believes that the public can be led by the nose to follow a narrative, and economic constraints is behind this hotchpotch. Two far more rewarding exhibitions were actually available during the festival period, one of them in the same complex: From Raphael to Renoir, drawings from the collection of Jean Bonna, needed no curator impute other than an alliterative title, simply because it was full of masterpieces; at the Queen’s Gallery an exhibition entitled The Conservation Piece, contained two further masterpieces, Stubbs’ The Prince of Wales’ Phaeton, surely his greatest work, and a large oval-shaped painting by Gainsborough where he returned to the Watteauesque style of his early work and anticipated Goya in the delicacy of his paint handling.
Goya was the under-represented presence in The Discovery of Spain exhibition. The Scottish National Gallery does possess a rare Goya and it was included in this show. But it is a very rare Goya because it is relatively uninteresting. This cannot be said of two other Goyas in a Scottish collection. I call them Scotland’s hidden masterpieces because I have never seen them reproduced in any monograph of the artist other than as thumbnails in a catalogue raisonné. I have spoken to several Scottish painters with a keen interest in the master who know nothing of them. Yet. I have checked with Pollok House, now looked after by the National Trust where the Maxwell Stirling Collection is housed and I am assured that they are currently on show.
They are part of a small series of paintings of children playing by the Spanish master, none of which seem to be in any major museum or art gallery and are thought to belong to the same period as the tapestry-cartoon paintings. There may be a tendency to dismiss these works, which can be described as rococo, a term thought by some to be derogatory, but it would be quite wrong to do so. It was in these paintings that Goya developed his strikingly original approach to composition. In Boys Playing at Seesaw, one of the two masterpieces, the seesaw figure in the air describes an ‘X’ shape while two groups of wrestling boys form tripods. Another of the five pairs of figures in the composition make one more novel composite with their silhouettes linked by the brims of their hats. All these combine in a lopsided pyramid that is balanced by a little monkey chained atop a high wall. It is a startlingly inventive performance as is the other work, Boys Playing at Soldiers that can be analysed in a similar fashion.
I do not know if any attempt was made to borrow these paintings which belong to the same collection as the Portrait of a Lady in a Fur Cape, supposedly by El Greco, part of the Spanish exhibition and chosen for the poster. The Pollok House Goyas would have raised the exhibition’s quality considerably. To anybody who has not seen these two great works, I can only make the suggestion that they hot foot it to Pollok House, Glasgow. They have a wonderful aesthetic experience awaiting them.