Francis Mckee

Hospitalfield. Image by Francis Mckee ( used under a Creative Commons license

Yesterday I visited Hospitalfield and enjoyed the hospitality of its enlightened and energetic Director, Lucy Byatt. The historic house in Arbroath was originally founded in the 13th Century, and has been altered and changed by many of its occupants since then. In particular, by Patrick Allan-Fraser, and the family he married into.

Patrick Allan-Fraser (1813-1890) can fairly be counted as one of Edinburgh College of Art’s most notable alumni.  The son of an Arbroath stocking manufacturer, he abandoned his family’s hopes that he might enter the legal trade and instead enrolled to train as a painter at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art’s founding institution).

From there he developed prodigious professional and social skills and graduated to the British Academy in Rome, before returning to Great Britain in 1840 to set up a studio in London’s artistic community, close to Euston Square.

A frequent visitor to Paris and an astute cultural entrepreneur, Allan capitalized both on the romanticism of his Scottish roots through adapting scenes from Walter Scott’s modish Waverley novels, and on his strengthening ties with wealthy patrons across Europe. As a member of the artists’ sketching club The Clique he developed lasting relationships with mid-Victorian luminaries including Charles Dickens and William Powell Frith.

In 1843 Allan returned to Arbroath to complete work on illustrations of a never-to-be realised deluxe edition of Scott’s works (Allan chose to work on The Antiquary, which was inspired by the historic Hospitalfield).

Whilst back in Angus, he developed a deep bond with the heiress to the Hospitalfield estate, the young widow Elizabeth Fraser Baker and they married that same year. The following decades saw Allan-Fraser (as he was now called) consolidate the family wealth and the physical state of the house and develop an expanding portfolio of land across Perthshire, which also inspired a new interest in social and agricultural reform.

Hospitalfield House itself was extensively remodeled through the 1850s, incorporating a picture gallery, which expressed Allan-Fraser’s continuing interest in contemporary painting. Local craftsmen also contributed to the glory of the interiors, producing wood and stone carvings of an intricacy and naturalism not seen since Grinling Gibbons. The whole ensemble was an original amalgamation of the radical aesthetic and social theories of Ruskin and the distinctive tastes of a cosmopolitan man of the world.

Allan-Fraser died in 1890, and in 1900 his wish to provide a legacy for the training of artists was realized through the opening up of Hospitalfield as an independent art school. From the beginning its intake was international. Leadership was provided by notable academicians, including George Harcourt, Austin Cooper and Frank Dobson. Perhaps ironically, the incorporation of civic art schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen in the early twentieth century rather undermined the distinctiveness and value of Hospitalfield, and it struggled to recruit following the devastation of World War I.

But by 1936 the school had refocused itself as a postgraduate programme, drawing graduates from the four Scottish Art Schools. Its alumni form an impressive roll-call of significant twentieth-century artists including Robert Colquhoun and Robert McBride, and Joan Eardley. Like many independent institutions, its financial luck ran out in the mid 1970s, but the function and spirit of Hospitalfield continued in the form of international artists’ summer schools and the retention of the building (its interiors largely intact) as an important local arts and heritage resource.

Hospitalfield is a magical place: both a testament to Patrick and Elizabeth Allan-Fraser whose home and collection still remain as a haunting evocation of the past, and to the strength of a continuing community of artistic practice. This was evidenced by the intense focus of a group of recent graduates from Scottish and other Art and Design Colleges who were engaged on a month’s residency while I was there.

The Patrick Allan-Fraser of Hospitalfield Trust is embarking on a new period of development and investment in order to secure the future of an extraordinary institution. I look forward to working with it in pursuit of that endeavor.

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