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Gray but not Forgotten

August 23, 2010

For a number of reasons (World Wars, use of offices by Government Departments, fire-proofing and building works) the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has previously been closed to the public (but not necessarily to the staff) between the years 1914 and 1922, 1931 and 1934, and 1939 and 1949. Our Portrait of the Nation project will be the largest and quickest refurbishment project undertaken in the Gallery’s history. As we now have less than a year left in our temporary bolt-hole (probably an inaccurate word to describe our offices as there really is nowhere to hide!) I thought I would take a look back to see if there was any evidence to suggest how the first Curator of the Gallery, John Miller Gray (1850-94) coped with the run-up to the original opening of the Portrait Gallery in July 1889, especially considering he more or less had a staff of one!

John Miller Gray Passeth a Bookshop by George Roland Halkett, dated 1881. Collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Gray was appointed as Curator in 1884 and therefore had five years in which to fulfil his main duty (nowadays this would be called a main objective and would have several radiating aims): “That the Curator’s time, so far as not otherwise occupied, might be profitably devoted to making enquiries and obtaining information regarding National Portraits of interest, their locality, and the probability of their being acquired by Gift, Loan or Purchase.” In the course of instituting a national collection of portraits Gray visited around forty private collections in Scotland (evidence revealed in thirteen of his surviving notebooks held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) recording instances of portraits of and by Scots in order to ensure the staging of several temporary exhibitions prior to the Gallery’s opening as a sort of ‘taster’ for the public.

As the day of reckoning in July 1889 drew near, Gray’s state of mind appears to grow in frenzy and concentration: he writes in March  “I am overwhelmed with work just now, but fairly well, and certainly, quite happy. I ‘live and like life’s way’ which it is well to do.” He writes in May: “I am overhead and ears in arrangements for opening my Gallery” and finally in June:  “I am very busy getting the new gallery open and am much fagged.”  At the end of July when the opening of  the Gallery has passed, Gray admits: “I need to be refreshed just now, for I feel quite done up and good for nothing, – the hot weather and over work perhaps.”  All to look forward to, but I suspect the class of 2011 may utilise slightly more colourful language to express their state of mind come the encroachment of November 2011!

Gray died at the age of 43 from a brain haemorrhage. I have finally managed to find out Gray’s plot number in Newington (Echo Bank) Cemetery in Edinburgh, but having visited the graveyard this week I think his grave may be one of the upturned stones above. More sleuthing to do. One of his close friends wrote that during the years of his Scottish National Portrait Gallery curatorship Gray was “the instigating spirit who led our best citizens to a higher ideal and made them work for it.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hilary Burwell permalink
    August 23, 2010 5:12 pm

    What an interesting entry Imogen!

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