Museum of the ‘highest pleasures’

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The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment has usually been associated with remarkable thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton who remained based in Edinburgh and Glasgow. But numerous Enlightenment Scots also descended on London, among them the physician, anatomist, collector and educator William Hunter.

Two hundred years ago, Hunter’s legacy was returned to Scotland in the form of Glasgow’s Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest museum and the repository of its founder’s “highest pleasures”: an enormous hoard of coins, minerals, scientific instruments, ethnographic items (including an Egyptian mummy) and much more. The complete museum inventory included many zoological specimens and a collection of art, which have since been hived off into museums of their own. The Hunterian Art Gallery, across the way from the museum proper, has now mounted a beautiful exhibition to show how Hunter collected his art and why it was so important to him.

William Hunter could afford to buy the best because he was possibly the wealthiest professional man in the kingdom. His money came from his career as a society obstetrician (“man-midwife”), in the course of which he delivered 14 royal children and scores of aristocratic ones, both legitimate and bastards, while charging the highest fees. At the same time he was delivering lectures at his school of dissection, demonstrating his knowledge to medical students and lay audiences alike. It was his combined interest in anatomy, education and collecting in art and “natural philosophy” that made him such a significant figure in mid-century Enlightenment London.

As an art collector, Hunter had a good eye, but he also knew how to get the best advice. He was an assiduous networker and something of a diplomat, moving easily between various political and social camps. At a time of ferment in London’s art world, when the old clashed with the contemporary, and contemporaries clashed with each other, Hunter assembled a choice selection of old masters, more recent European painting and the contemporary British School. His eclectic circle of friends included the Scots engraver Robert Strange and the Liverpudlian animal painter George Stubbs. These were key figures at the Society of Artists during its highly political war against the nascent Royal Academy. The point at issue could hardly have been more contentious – the all-inclusiveness of the Society against the elitism of the Academy – yet it was typical of Hunter that he could maintain these friendships while accepting the post of the Academy’s first Professor of Anatomy.

Preparing his first Academy lectures in 1770, Hunter almost certainly drew on conversations about art and nature with the sober, genial Stubbs, himself a skilled anatomist and teacher. Meanwhile three works by Stubbs entered the collection, directly commissioned by Hunter, all of which were paintings of exotic species on which Hunter prepared papers for the Royal Society. From the very different Strange, a quarrelsome Jacobite but an excellent printmaker and astute judge of art, Hunter received advice on the art market, as well as buying works directly from Strange. Although by no means solely reliant on him (among others he also listened to the painter Allan Ramsay, whose penetrating portrait of Hunter is one of the show’s highlights), his fellow Scot was to exert considerable influence on Hunter’s taste.

Hunter was careful with his money and wanted a select rather than a comprehensive art collection. Thirty-five of the paintings he owned, about half of the total, are on show in this exhibition, alongside a large haul of prints, books and anatomical objects, which include “Smugglerius”, the flayed figure cast from an actual body that Hunter commissioned from Agostino Carlini. Named jocularly after a subject for Hunterian dissection, an executed smuggler whose muscles the anatomist had admired, this teaching aid (in typical neo-classical style) is in the pose of a celebrated Roman statue, the so-called “Dying Gladiator”.

Hunter’s haul of pictures contained a few duds, several that are not what he thought them to be and at least half a dozen masterpieces, including three breathtaking works by Chardin. One of these, though Hunter probably didn’t know it, is a 1735 portrait of the artist’s first wife, who died that same year. “A Lady Taking Tea” shows her sitting in profile at a red table, musing over the rising steam while she stirs the tea. Like the two smaller servant portraits by Chardin hanging alongside, it is a perfect demonstration of how this least sentimental of painters is also one of the most affecting. In his own lifetime, Chardin was feted as a new Rembrandt but the still, meditative qualities of this picture suggest that the truer comparison is with Vermeer.

Hunter paid only £8 for Mme Chardin, perhaps because of the small mistakes the painter had made in perspective, which art pedants of the time would have jumped on. Never mind. Hunter had managed to strike one of the best art bargains.

At the other end of the price range and in a much more openly emotional register, Murillo’s “The Infant Christ as the Good Shepherd” was bought from Robert Strange for £210, the steepest price Hunter paid for a canvas. The attribution is now to Murillo’s studio, though that implies no disrespect to the judgement of Hunter or Strange. Whoever he was, this must have been a very talented assistant indeed.

Several other blue-chip masters bought in by Hunter – a Rembrandt landscape, a Poussin or two, a Canaletto, a Correggio and a Guido Reni – are now attributable to assistants or “circle of”, but these should not be dismissed. Errors in attribution are themselves always interesting when seen in context. There is, however, one undoubted Rembrandt sketch, “The Entombment”, which touches the heart of Old Mastery. This small but highly charged work plays wonderfully with light, darkness and design in its exploration of the drama of the burial of Christ. Of the four so-called Rembrandts bought by Hunter, this little gem is the absolutely genuine one.

To visit this exhibition, expertly curated by Peter Black, is to be immersed in the taste and cultural norms of the Anglo-Scots Enlightenment, just before it was overwhelmed by the tsunami of Romanticism. After more than two centuries, the water remains clear and refreshing.

‘My Highest Pleasures’, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, until December 1, tel: +44 (0)141-330 4221

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