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Book review : A Capital View: The Art Of Edinburgh : Panoramas and portraits of a city beyond imagination

June 29, 2014

David Robinson

A Capital View: The Art Of Edinburgh by Alyssa Jean Popiel, Birlinn, GBP25EDINBURGH has always been the kind of city that makes art look easy. Even those of us who have never dabbed brush on canvas can get carried away by its sheer physical drama and imagine it really wouldn't be that hard to capture it in any variety of painterly styles.The slow sweep of light on the north-facing slopes of Arthur's Seat, such a shocking expanse of green as you emerge from tenement streets? I've seen it so many times, but now realise that Claude Buckle got there before me for his 1960 railway poster. The way, viewed from Princes Street on a late winter's evening, the buildings around Cockburn Street seem so foreshortened, like a Vorticist stage set? Adam Bruce Thomson's 1930s painting of North Bridge and Salisbury Crags beat me to it.Anyone who knows Edinburgh will have similar mental images of it to paintings that can be found in its City Collection, which as both this book and the current exhibition at the City Art Centre make you realise, is one of the most wide-ranging in these islands. However, the real interest in both lies in images of Edinburgh that we couldn't begin to imagine.Without William Delacour's 1759 painting, for example, would we realise that Enlightenment Edinburgh had clouds of smog above it? Without Thomas Donaldson's 1780 etching of a view of the North Bridge, would we have any notion of what the future Princes Street Gardens looked like when cattle roamed on the fields before the railway cut through them?There's so much more here, in paintings that are beautifully presented and excellently explained. Imagine what the Mound looked like before Playfair got his hands on it and you're probably not envisioning a peep show and an elephant advertising a firework display, but that's what you get in Charles Halkerston's1843 View Of Princes Street. Or imagine, as in William Reid's mid-19th century painting, a Leith with a vast expanse of sand instead of docks, where le tout Edinburgh gathered for its biggest sporting occasion - the Leith Races - with vast crowds gathering in front of the kiln-like glassworks chimneys on the shore. All gone, all forgotten - and all, therefore, that much more of a surprise to see again.There are paintings here of great artistic merit - portraits by Cadell and Gunn that would grace any national collection, and Sir Stanley Cursiter's wonderful Pachmann At The Usher Hall - but I don't think that is completely the point. What counts here are a series of portraits and panoramas of a city you may know well but haven't seen before and can hardly imagine. The shock of the old, in other words - Auld Reekie as you haven't seen her before but really should.


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Source: Scotland on Sunday


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