This article appeared in the May/June issue (71) of Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine
Scottish art’s hidden treasure
Eardley, Gray and Howson all worked within the walls of this Arbroath mansion, drawing inspiration from its splendid art collection and glorious interior
Fittingly, for an historic house which has played host to some of the finest painters Scotland has produced over the last hundred years, Hospitalfield is made up of layer upon layer of history.
Its story as a public and private place seeps through the walls, via intricate wood and stone carvings, paintings of family members, ancient artefacts and pieces of furniture. Stroll through the public rooms of this handsome red-sandstone Grade A-listed residential arts centre, which sits on an ancient raised beach in the Angus town of Arbroath, and your eye is caught at every turn by one treasure after another. There are heads everywhere – carved, painted or chiselled out in sandstone, and they loom out at you in all directions.
As you wander through its panelled hallways of what feels like a cross between a Gothic mansion and a fairytale castle, your head starts to fill up with tales of ghostly goings-on. Ancient dusty tomes crowd out the bookshelves, and if you stop for a moment, you can almost hear the clipped tones of former warden and artist James Cowie, who reportedly gave many of the younger artists under his tutelage a hard time (all in the name of art, you understand), picking out a reference book to hammer home whichever point he was making.
Rifle through the odd drawer and you may just stumble across – as I did – an ancient fur wrap. Look up – as I did – and you’ll find the one-time doyenne of the house, Elizabeth Parrott Fraser, staring down from a canvas with a disapproving glint in her beady eye. Around her shoulders is the same 200-year-old fur wrap that you found in the armoire.
If you are lucky enough to be in the company of Hospitalfield director Willie Payne, who has been keeper of its flame for the last 35 years, the stories come thick and fast. Every item in this rambling house, from the bucolic tapestries in the drawing room to the gas-mantled chandeliers in the hugely theatrical oak-panelled picture gallery, have a tale to tell.
The two tapestries, which date from the 17th century, mirror the
landscape outside, explains Payne. They were acquired in the 1870s to reflect a significant passage about the room in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel, The Antiquary, which the great Scottish novelist penned in 1816. Scott stayed here in 1803 and 1809, and Hospitalfield is reputed to be the model for the book’s Monksbarns house.
As for the chandeliers, they were last lit in the 1920s, according to Payne. “Patrick Allan-Fraser, the 19th-century art collector who married into the Fraser family in 1843, took on the job of reviving and managing the extensive Hospitalfield estate,” he says. “He was very dynamic and his attention to detail was exemplary. He was not averse to picking up
interesting bits and pieces on his travels. The chandeliers came from Birmingham’s Guildhall. Patrick was there on a visit and was told the Guildhall was getting rid of them. Ever on the hunt for suitable pieces for Hospitalfield, he said he would take them.”
Payne has come to know Hospitalfield House intimately. His knowledge of the building, its history and its contents, is encyclopaedic, but it goes beyond that: this place has a habit of seeping into the bloodstream of its residents, be they long or short term.
Effectively Scotland’s first school of fine art, Hospitalfield started out as a Hospice run by Tironesian monks from nearby Arbroath Abbey in the 13th century. It was remodelled in the middle of the 19th century by Arbroath-born Allan-Fraser, an artist who became the president of the British Academy of Art in Rome, as well as a leading patron and champion of Scottish artists of the day.
Using his own craftsmen, many of whom were local, Allan-Fraser created a prototype for the Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement. The ultimate philanthropic networker, he built up a superb collection of art and sculpture using the skills of friends and associates, which are now part of Hospitalfield’s unique heritage.
The main public rooms are the drawing room, the dining room, the library, the picture gallery and its adjoining cedar room and anteroom. The picture gallery is the centrepiece, and when the double doors are thrown open from the anteroom, there is a real sense of theatre as you enter this room, which is reminiscent of the interior of a great wood-panelled ocean liner.
Corbelled hammer beams spring from the wall, displaying winged angels, which carry the armorial bearings of the Fraser family from their arrival in 1664, and the Parrot family, of Hawkesbury, whose estates joined with the Fraser estate in the mid 19th century.
A monumental fireplace carved out of limestone by James Christie of Carmyllie, a local craftsman, dominates the room and is a storybook of family history in its own right.
All around the walls in here and in the adjacent cedar room is a significant collection of paintings and sculpture which Allan-Fraser built up throughout his lifetime. Poignantly, given his deference to family history in the remodelling of Hospitalfield, he and his wife Elisabeth did not have any children and, on his death in 1890, the house was left in trust as a residential centre for professional education in the arts.
This generous bequest is still in place and has allowed major artists such as James Cowie, Ian Fleming, Joan Eardley, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde and William Gear to live and work for a while at Hospitalfield. Latterly, acclaimed artists such as Will Maclean, Alasdair Gray, Peter Howson, Joyce Cairns, Helen Wilson and recent Aspect Prize winner Patricia Cain have all spent time there.
Although it is well known to the Scottish arts world, and to people in the immediate locale, Hospitalfield still feels like a hidden treasure. All this looks set to change, as plans are now in place to extend its role as a champion for the development of art and culture throughout Scotland.
Under the dynamic leadership of Ken Cargill, the trust’s chairman (and former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland), Hospitalfield will be offered as a venue for weddings and events such as dinners, workshops and conferences.
Its ongoing reputation as top jazz venue will be augmented by a series of cultural happenings, including visits by authors Alasdair Gray and Alexander McCall Smith, art and writing master classes, concerts and exhibitions.
Like Sir Walter Scott, Elisabeth Parrot Fraser, Patrick Allan-Fraser, James Cowie, Joan Eardley and all the other spirits who flit through the corridors of Hospitalfield House, the energy generated by everyone who passes through will keep it a hive of creative endeavour for centuries to come. r
For more information about Hospitalfield House, see www.hospitalfield.org.uk
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)