Highest Pleasures: William Hunters Art Collection
Until December 1; Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow
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 Londons 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 Glasgows east end in 1807, the Hunterian was Scotlands
first public museum, and the first in Britain to include a gallery
of paintings. Two hundred years on, in new premises and with Hunters
name all but forgotten, the gallerys 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 Londons first private
school of anatomy.
But that was not Hunters 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
Hunters 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 Hunters 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 isnt quite the word for Rembrandts Entombment,
or Chardins three masterpieces, or Snyders great Baroque
still life. There are 12 acknowledged masterpieces in Hunters
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
Despite years of painstaking research, Hunter is not quite brought
back to life by this show. Perhaps its 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 Hunters museum from
Or perhaps the difficulty lies with the buildings general gloomy
state of neglect. While the museum has just been refurbished, the
gallerys 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 dont make the top 12
are desperately in need of conservation.
The Hunterians 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.
Black, Sunday Herald 08.07.07