Creator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Born: October 9, 1926;
Died: April 23, 2019
DOUGLAS Hall, who died recently, aged 92, was the founder and creator of Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It opened in 1960 at the small yet beautiful Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden; in 1984 it moved to its current, magnificent building on Belford Road.
He established its notable independent character with its wonders and its gaps. He laid out his attitude to collecting in two frank and fearless essays he modestly titled “An Account of my stewardship,” wherein he declared, “New is not in itself a merit.”
Hall was an elegant, astute, and rather whimsical man. He was a memorable figure – handsome, urbane, witty, knowledgeable, and possessed of a keen eye. Over 26 years he headed Edinburgh’s key establishment for modern art.
At the start, things were primitive. There was no office, no purchase grant to speak of. With only £7,500 a year, Hall’s acquisitions were both limited and, he admitted, “inclusive, personal, eclectic and fundamentally humanist.” Budgets were a constant worry. There was no money to buy big names like Picasso or Matisse, and no exhibition fund.
Yet in ten years, and without an assistant, he single-handedly established an Edinburgh jewel with international scope. Visitors to Inverleith House in the Botanics were presented with exciting new art and artists. Hall tended to avoid the obvious, but snapped up gems such as Kirchner, Morandi, Nolde, Max Ernst, Braque, Dubuffet, Tapies, Burri, Hodler, to say nothing of an early John Piper abstract bought from the studio in 1978, and a Joan Eardley Wave in 1962.
Soon an expansion was on the horizon. Funding improved dramatically once the imposing neo-classical John Watson building on Belford Road was acquired. It was “a rosy period,” he remembered. Now Hall was able to buy large-scale paintings by key figures like Otto Dix, Lichtenstein, Balthus, Bellany, Bridget Riley, big heavy sculpture by Cesar and Richard Long.
The 1984 move was celebrated with a truly magnificent inaugural show called ‘Creation.’ “It was inspired,” says former colleague James Holloway. “A look at twentieth century art through the perspective of the seven days of Creation, -you could call that the eyes of God! I had not realised Hall was such a staunch Anglican.” Loans came from all over the world, totalling 170 works. I personally remember the opening as a great day, with Creation designated “one of the most beautiful as well as provocative shows anywhere in Britain.”
A year after this triumph Hall had heart surgery and, despite full recovery, was pressed to retire aged 60. It was a pity, a great waste of an experienced, passionate art expert who had masterminded a quarter century of development and expansion, transforming an idea into reality. By 1986 the Collection had reached a stage, he acknowledged later, “unimaginable when I started.”
Hall had been criticised for his staunch beliefs and idiosyncratic taste. He ignored pressure to focus on Scottish art. He hated celebrity and ‘hype,’ so ignored big names like Bacon, Warhol or Freud. He disliked the avant-garde, was not keen on Surrealism, ignored American abstraction. He loved expressionism, liked art that was “ripe rather than raw; mature rather than juvenile. Art for lifetimes, not just of the present moment.” He favoured the unusual, and admitted he failed to explore or sufficiently exploit the Glasgow art scene.
Artist Sam Ainsley sees him as “an influential, sensitive, scholarly and conscientious director who always thought of the long-term view for any National Collection.” Art historian Magda Salvesen, who worked with him on SAC exhibitions in the late 1960s, remembers: “His remarks, never voluble, never spoken with flourishes or excessive expression, were short, pithy comments in that slight drawl which belonged to a certain generation of educated British men. I admired his perceptions, his independence of eye and mind, his ability to see the wider context.”
Hall’s parents were Scottish. He was called up in 1944 and worked in intelligence till 1948, when he enrolled at the Courtauld Institute in London, graduating in 1952. He married a fellow student and had two children. His first job in 1953 was at the Rutherson Collection of British Art, moving to Manchester City Art Gallery as Keeper in 1957 becoming Deputy Director in 1959. In 1980 he married his second wife Matilda Mitchell. Hall was awarded an OBE in 1985 and an honorary doctorate from Stirling University in 2009. He retired to a beautiful house in the Borders where the garden was a joy to them both. He retained a lively mind and passion for art. My visit to see him last year was as ever an education.
He is survived by his wife Matilda, a son and daughter and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.