“My Highest Pleasures”: William Hunter’s Art Collection
Until December 1; Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow

“In the midst of his cabinet, Mr Hunter was the most learned;” lamented a great French anatomist after the death of William Hunter, “and his collection itself took on a new meaning… Now the chain of all these truths is broken; all is silent in this vast structure, or rather all proclaims the loss of a great man, whose debris still deserves our homage”.

William Hunter was an acclaimed anatomist in his day, physician to Queen Charlotte, a founding member of the Royal Academy, and celebrated in London’s intellectual and social circles. He is also the reason the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery exists. Leaving his entire “cabinet” to Glasgow University in his will, Hunter also bequeathed a healthy £8,000 for the building of a museum in which to house it.

Opening in Glasgow’s east end in 1807, the Hunterian was Scotland’s first public museum, and the first in Britain to include a gallery of paintings. Two hundred years on, in new premises and with Hunter’s name all but forgotten, the gallery’s curators have tried hard to reanimate his spirit amidst the “debris” of his collection.

Born in East Kilbride and educated in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Hunter was not only a pioneering anatomist, but a showman too. His lectures in London were popular affairs, attracting luminaries such as the economist Adam Smith, and drawing attention from the popular press. When Hunter considered giving up teaching, his students petitioned him not to, and persuaded him to open London’s first private school of anatomy.

But that was not Hunter’s only passion. His curiosity led him to study many kinds of art, Egyptian mummies, Roman coins, extinct species of animals, and countless other subjects. All of these, in Hunter’s mind, were related to each other. “Now the chain of all these truths is broken”, and the Hunterian is trying to piece them back together. The difficulty, as Hunter’s French colleague identified over 200 years ago, is that the inspirational polymath is no longer around to animate the debris he left behind.

Of course debris isn’t quite the word for Rembrandt’s Entombment, or Chardin’s three masterpieces, or Snyder’s great Baroque still life. There are 12 acknowledged masterpieces in Hunter’s collection of 65 paintings – not a bad success rate during an era when misattributions were rife. But these 12 paintings, placed at the heart of the exhibition, do throw everything around them into the shade.

Despite years of painstaking research, Hunter is not quite brought back to life by this show. Perhaps it’s because his art (along with its anatomical foundations) is segregated from the rest of his cabinet. As the show is keen to point out, Hunter saw no great division between art, science, philosophy or any other topic to which he turned his attention. But that divide has since crept in, and the roaring traffic of University Avenue now separates Hunter’s museum from his gallery.

Or perhaps the difficulty lies with the building’s general gloomy state of neglect. While the museum has just been refurbished, the gallery’s walls are pocked with the holes of previous picture hooks, some display cabinets – surely antiques themselves – are not easy to see into, and the smell of dust hangs in the air. Even the paintings – those which don’t make the top 12 – are desperately in need of conservation.

The Hunterian’s collection was officially recognised by the Executive recently as being of national significance, and rightly so. We can only hope that this will bring with it the money required to really bring Hunter back from the dead.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 08.07.07