Richard Long has observed that the best and safest way to cross Dartmoor is to walk in a straight line, but in the city things are rarely so simple. Long’s important exhibition at The National Gallery of Modern Art was postponed to another day, and I shall postpone it to a review of its own, while I follow our ramblings southwards towards the Old City, seeking out addresses my friend had given me. As sophisticated and rational as Edinburgh may be, at least the New Town, certain prospects encourage one to think of it as a city of the earth. It is mostly built of stone, after all, as neatly chiselled as it may be. As you turn the corner around the façade of the new Parliament, Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, appears ready to swallow it up…or is that only wishful thinking? The classical structures on Calton Hill, stone-built as they are, only draw attention to the chthonic presence of the eminence on which they stand. (Like Rome, Edinburgh has seven hills: Calton Hill, Castle Hill, Corstorphine Hill, Craiglockhart Hill, Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, Arthur’s Seat.) This theme, moreover, had its way of cropping up, not only in Richard Long, but in other exhibitions as well.
The Fruitmarket Gallery, on the left as one ascends Market Street towards North Bridge, was showing the work of Alex Hartley, whose particular take on architecture leads one straight to the earth, asserting an equivalency between the natural and man-made entities. This show was all about“buildering,” the act of climbing buildings as one would mountains. In photographs, as well as in a set of instructions for climbing the Fruitmarket Gallery itself, Hartley presents us with a series of possibilities for impossible acts of climbing over the surface of the edifices, both a striving and an aesthetic experience which deprives the structures of whatever practical use their builders may have intended. In some of of the encased photographs, three-dimensional extrusions enhance this sense of unreality through that typical device of realism. In others, involving the “Case Study” houses of the West Coast, the experience of architecture requires trespassing, the violation of the owners’ privacy and the inaccessibility of these icons of modern architecture, which is an essential aspect of their function. As the gallery notes say: “encounters with buildings are grounded by conventions and expectations, but Hartley shows us new ways of physically experiencing and thinking about the buit environment — through surface and line, scale and materials, locations and contexts. Climbing is a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass. By subverting conventional approaches to the built environment, Hartley presents the possibility of physical and political freedom.” Of course we can’t just wander into, or even around, just any building we fancy. It isn’t easy to find land that doesn’t belong to somebody, even the state or a land trust, and isn’t designated for a specific purpose, even if that purpose is all we probably desire from it: passive, non-destructive enjoyment. Thoreau would have found Hartley’s agenda appealing.
Passing by Old St. Paul’s, the refuge of Anglo-Catholics in the Scottish capital since the late seventeenth century, “hidden” on the slope of Market Street, we cut up a narrow, dark, merdurinous alley to Cockburn Street in search of Stills, an impressive, multi-story photographic center, offering darkroom and digital facilities, courses, a library and gallery spaces to photographers and enthusiasts. On the way we passed a shop which offered kiełbasa, bigos, and gołąbki along with haggis, neeps, and tatties, as much a sign of changing times as the haggis samosa, which my son tells me are excellent. But it was not time to snack; more photography lay ahead.
Stills was then showing the work of John Stezaker (their Festival show) and Catherine Street, one of their resident artists. Both artists work by cutting and rearranging photographs and printed matter from random sources as well as of their own creation. While Street’s collages were unsettling in a somewhat disturbing way, Stezaker’s reoriented us in a familiar, but still disorienting way by reduplicating left and right in bilateral symmetry and by juxtaposing found photographs and postcards of a certain age. In one he plays with space, and with time in the other. These intriguing exhibitions were followed by a friendly and informative tour of Stills’ exemplary technical facilities.
Over High Street and down Niddry Street to Cowgate stands St. Cecilia’s Hall (1762/63), the oldest purpose-built concert hall in the UK after the Holywell Music Room (1742) at Oxford. We arrived there as a major football match (Scotland v. Ukraine, I think) ran its course, shown across Cowgate on an open air screen in the three Sisters’ beer garden. While hysteria reigned in the streets, a learned and decorous grad student in musicology guided us through the amazing Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments adjoining the hall, all of which belong to the University of Edinburgh, one of the great repositories of historical instruments in the world. There she explained and demonstrated instruments ranging from an Italian virginal of the 1580’s, not one but two harpsichords by Pascal Taskin, as well as impressive Flemish and German instruments. Most intriguing were nineteenth century forgeries, or semi-forgeries, in which genuine, but ruined instruments, some by renowned makers, were refashioned into three manuals. The nineteenth century was a golden age of forgery, as its creative response to medievalism shows, but a three-manual harpsichord is a collector’s pink elephant, not that they never existed.
His Majestys Sackbutts and Cornetts were due to play in St. Cecilia’s Hall that evening, but we already had tickets for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall, the splendid historical instrument performance of Haydn and Beethoven under Thierry Fischer I have already reviewed. But here I can say a word about the Queen’s Hall itself.
The Queen’s Hall was built in 1823 to the designs of Robert Brown as the Hope Park Chapel of Ease. Its origins as a church are apparent primarily in the domed three-stage steeple behind its pedimented front. It was converted into a concert hall in 1978-79. Remember then, when many underused and deteriorating public spaces in the UK and elsewhere were being simply, but imaginatively, and very effectively transformed into performance spaces? In that spirit, as it exists today, the spaces are somewhat awkward and cramped, the architectural detailing a bit rough, but the acoustics are marvellous, and musicians and audiences love the place, among both the classical and the pop contingents who share it—a fact which became eminently clear in the summer of 2006, when the Edinburgh City Council contemplated replacing it with a new hall on the Waterfront. Pop music figures like Roseanne Cash, Laura Cantrell, and the Proclaimers joined in a successful campaign organized by the Edinburgh Evening News to save the site. They were not joined by the SCO, who were in favor of a new hall. This year the Queen’s has applied for a £10 million renovation plan. If you are interested in contributing to this excellent cause, click here.
As much as walking grounds one in the present, or at least mediates between the here and now and whatever shamanic tricks or memory and desires may play on us, all the miles we covered on the pavements of Edinburgh took their toll. Finally, late one afternoon we collapsed on a bench in the Prince’s Street Gardens, only to be ejected because the park was closing. Lucas proposed a visit to the National Gallery of Scotland, our third, and fortunately it was the day it was open late, that is, until seven. (On a previous visit we had seem the splendid little Blake exhibition built around the National Gallery’ great watercolor of God Writing upon the Tables of the Covenenant, and including a set of his wood engravings illustrating Virgil’s first Eclogue, the sad one, in which Meliboeus (in this free version, “Colinet”), dispossessed of his farm, sets out on a wandering life as an exile.) Sometimes art makes its strongest impression when we are least alert. Sitting with aching limbs and a fatigued mind between Titian’s great poesie for Philip II, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, I was able to sink into them as never before. The galleries, moreover, were dead quiet. Only two or three other visitors passed silently through the spaces. It occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced this privileged quietude in a museum in many years. Evenings at the Metropolitan Museum are like rush hour at Grand Central. Art and viewer alike suffer in the hyperactivity of American museum culture. Knowing this would be my last visit for a while, I dragged myself to The Three Ages of Man and the Gallery’s marvellous 2003 acquisition the Venus Anadyomene, travelling from the world of Ovid back to the world of Hesiod with something less than Hera’s speed and agility, but, now given over to looking, with all the seasoned Homeric traveller’s fleetness of attention.