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Director General, National Galleries of Scotland

Interview: Sir John Leighton

Sir John Leighton
Sir John Leighton: Monarch will be a big draw (photo by Terry Murden)

Paintings by numbers

It’s better known for appearing on chocolate boxes, tea towels and calendars. Certainly the merchandisers have made more money from the Monarch of the Glen than the man who painted it.

“The detail is exquisite and you can almost feel the wet nose of the stag,” says Sir John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland which has just raised £4 million to buy one of the iconic pieces of Scottish art.

Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer sits in a category of popular paintings such as Constable’s Haywain as arguably more famous for decorating consumer products than as a great work.

“Yes, it does have a reputation for appearing on chocolate boxes, and in the 1950s and 1960s it would have been seen as quite kitsch,” he says. Changes in taste and a deeper appreciation of the original work has changed perceptions, he argues. “It has come through all that and remains a very good painting.”

He is convinced that the £4m, raised from the National Lottery, Scottish Government and a last minute public appeal, is money well spent and that the art world is not alone in regarding Monarch of the Glen as Landseer’s masterpiece. As the work was unveiled at the gallery to confirm that the funding was in place, a steady flow of visitors were eager to view it and grab a photo.

“There is something memorable about the simplicity of the image. The natural pose of the animal. It has become the pose we expect to see in a stag,” says Sir John.

He reveals that the gallery believes it will become such a draw that it is already considering it as a replacement for another iconic Scottish painting – Raeburn’s Skating Minister – as the signature image to promote the gallery on its own merchandise.

“Monarch would become of the 100 masterpieces in the gallery and in terms of recognition it is famous across the world. Lachlan Goudie (the artist who features on BBC TV’s Big Painting Challenge) says most countries would kill for a painting like Monarch of the Glen.”

Sir John says Landseer may not have been in the top ten, but he was a “great artist” who has captured an image with “a life of its own”.

He adds: “It says something about the power of a painted image in the 21st century.”

Belfast-born Sir John studied fine art in Edinburgh and returned to the city to take up his current post in 2006 after working in London and Amsterdam.

Before this latest acquisition his most notable deal for the NGS was the purchase of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and the Artist Rooms collection. In recognition of his contribution to the arts, he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh in 2009 and a Knighthood in December 2012.

His attention will now turn to resuming work on the delayed extension following the decision to revisit the £16.8 million plans which have proved to be more costly that first expected.

Artist’s impression of extension (Hoskins Architects)

NGS intends the Hoskins Architects-designed extension to transform access to its collection of Scottish art which has been consigned for years to an outdated basement area.

However, the project has been delayed after technical challenges emerged – believed to include work on the foundations –  and tenders for the work came in above budget.

Interserve, which is also working on the nearby Haymarket development, has issued about 60 sub-contract packages for the extension.

“Some of the tenders came back higher than we had hoped, so for the next few weeks we are doing ‘value engineering’,” says Sir John.

He admits some of the tenders were “considerably higher” but adds that it is normal to “refine” projects from early estimates.

“This is specialist work and in some cases there are only two or three firms who can do it. But they also have other options. The market in Edinburgh is very heated – there is a lot of construction work around, and then you have contractors pricing for the political uncertainty.

“It is a very difficult site. If you are a contractor and you can choose to build on a simple brown field site, or take on something as complicated as this it is not difficult to see why the price goes up.”

He says the gallery will “pause for a while” while it looks again at the budget and examines what needs to be done.

“We are trying to keep to the original project. We may have to look at materials and it may mean looking at some aspects of the design.”

The gallery board expects to reveal the revised programme by May, he said.

The gallery will remain open throughout the building work, and is hoping to continue the upward trajectory of visitor numbers.

Figures due shortly will show last year was another record attendance.

“We have benefited from downturns in Paris and Brussels but also because culture is becoming more accessible to the public,” he says.

“It is no longer seen as a luxury or something for someone else. It is important to them and enhances the quality of their lives.”


Birthplace: Belfast

Age: 58

Educated: Studied Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art and history of art at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Career highlights: Taught art history in Edinburgh before being appointed in 1986 as curator of 19th-century paintings at the National Gallery in London, a post he held for over ten years; From 1997 he was director of the Van Gogh Museum where he was responsible for the world’s most important collection of Van Gogh and one of Europe’s leading collections of 19th century art; 2006, appointed director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Other honours

Awarded an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh in 2009 and a Knighthood in December 2012.


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