Impulses Towards Life: Drawing and Painting from the Edinburgh College of Art Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.    
November 2015

Impulses Towards Life: Drawing and Painting from the Edinburgh College of Art Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

Throughout the course of the 19th and 20th centuries it was accepted practice for art schools and colleges to teach the skills of life drawing — depicting the human figure from a life model. Edinburgh College of Art was no exception. The college, which was originally named the Trustees Academy, has roots that go back as far as 1760, but from 1826 was based in the Royal Institution, later the Royal Scottish Academy. It was here that an impressive collection of plaster casts taken from sites of antiquity, such as the Parthenon, was amassed for educational purposes.

A photograph in the archives of ECA, taken around 1890, shows the “antique room” at the Royal Institution, full of staff and students, crammed with replicas of classical statuary, including numerous busts, as well as parts of the Parthenon Frieze, nowadays known as the Elgin Marbles.

The antique casts are the subjects of detailed drawings by William McTaggart (1935-1910) and George Paul Chalmers (1833-1878). Both were contemporaries at the Trustees Academy and, as was the practice at the time, they were required to complete a series of “stump” drawings from the “antique room”. These drawings, laborious and fastidious works, were made not with a pencil but a ball of leather or suede in a stick, which allowed the graphite to be worked carefully into the paper to achieve a detailed, polished finish.

The innate classicism of these drawings and their original place of composition in the Royal Institution find a fitting echo in the neoclassical setting of the Talbot Rice Georgian Gallery — both buildings were designed by the architect William Playfair in the 1820s.

Chalmers, who hailed from Montrose, and became known as the “Angus Rembrandt”, was particularly skilled in the depiction of light. His drawing, which dates from 1855, as does McTaggart’s, shows a central grouping of standing figures, notable not only for a strong compositional sense but also in the contrasting areas of light and shade. Chalmers was mugged in Charlotte Square, aged 45, and died shortly afterwards. His legacy extended to a large body of history and genre paintings, as well as contemporary portraiture.

One of the main purposes of this collection was pedagogical; the works were held up as examples of best practice and used in the instruction of generations of students. In another sense, however, the collection also shows the evolving attitude to the figure and its depiction, throughout the 20th century, in particular.

Works by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, for example, are particularly instructive. Moore’s drawing of a large female nude, from relatively early in his career, in 1924, shows the beginnings of his journey towards stylisation. Hepworth’s work, Studies for a Man and Woman, dates from 1949 and shows her adeptness in capturing the essential qualities of grouped figures. These drawings are exemplary and they demonstrate how the basic skills of observation and technique underpinned the teaching of students not only in Edinburgh but in Europe and elsewhere. These were the basic “grammatical” components of an enduring, valuable and essential visual language.

Until December 19


Barbara Hepworth’s 1949 work, entitled Three Groups on a Pink Ground (Girl with Clasped Hands), features in the exhibition