Thursday, 26 March 2015
Hunter's gift to Glasgow
On those many excursions from the alma mater, Edinburgh, to breath-of-fresh air Glasgow I used to make as a student in the 1980s, I now realise that I only ever saw the Hunterian Art Gallery and the reconstructed Rennie Mackintosh House on the Glasgow University campus, never the Hunterian Museum itself. I'd not even wandered into the two quads behind the famous bell tower, consecutive works of Giles Gilbert Scott and his son Oldrid. Valuing this sort of thing much more now, I find there's more to it than just the mere statistic of this being the second largest Gothic Revival work after the Palace of Westminster.
The original Hunterian collection goes back further. Doctor William Hunter, obstetrician, royal physician, anatomical surgeon and passionate collector of much more than merely scientific objects, was born near Glasgow in 1718, graduated from the University in 1731 before going on to study Medicine in Edinbugh and moved to London 10 years later, where he died in 1783. The collections he bequeathed to Glasgow were transported up north and the first museum to house them was on the old university site, an edifice on the High Street dating back to 1451 (who'd have thought it? Another statistic - Glasgow University per se is the fourth oldest in the English-speaking world).
That site was moved to the splendid eminence where the clock tower stands proud, Gilmorehill, with the river Kelvin winding around beneath it, in 1870. So large is the Hunterian collection that it's been split over four different buildings. I'd love to see the zoology department on my next visit - from the below picture in the main hall, it looks as if all those stuffed animals once stood in the grand hall which is the centrepiece of the current displays.
While there's no chance of reconstructing how the galleries once looked - I suppose I was hoping for something as authentic as Bamberg's phenomenal Vogelsaal - the mix after the 2011 re-opening still has a little of that cabinet-of-curiosities jumble which has intrigued me ever more since reading Simon Winder's Germania. Very few postcards available, so with approval I snapped some of the objects. Needless to say most have been accumulated since Hunter's day, but there's a whole assemblage of his items in the first room, and I believe these specimen jars on the mezzanine level are his.
Many other distinguished academics have bequeathed their collections, including Professor Bernard Hague, whose musical instruments stand proud in several central glass cases - our friend Andrew van der Beek will approve of the serpent -
and William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin, hugely distinguished mathematical physicist and engineer, is represented by a wide range of objects, including this French horn of 1840 which he used to demonstrate acoustical properties in his lectures.
Richard Fortey's The Earth has acquainted me with some of Scotland's specific geological wonders, so I wasn't too surprised to find that these three stones from the mines at Ledhills-Wanlockhead 60 miles south east of Glasgow are unique to the area and take their names from it: they're leadhillite, the yellow one with small blue caledonite crystals; caledonite itself, turquoise blue with deep blue tinarite; and lanarkite, shiny transparent needles with greenish-yellow pyromorphite.
Rocks and stones are beginning to have as much appeal to me as human masterpieces, all this in preparation for my next life as a zoologist. This goethite from Queensland, Australia is eye-catching because of its iridescence, but it's a nice link to Johann Wolfgang, after whom it takes its name, because I so treasured the objects from his own cabinet of curiosities, including fossilised fish, which sat alongside the Tischbein portrait - enormous, much to my surprise - in the British Museum's excellent German exhibition.
These kyanite crystals in quartz are beauties, too, purchased from Capelinha in Brazil with assistance from the NFA, so presumably rather precious.
Back to Scotland for this deep sea coral, Lophelia pertussa, can you believe, dredged up by fisherman from the sea between Colla and Barra off the west coast.
Around the hall are, inter alia, mummies and scarabs, a Maori artifact believed to come from one of Captain Cook's expeditions and this skull of a young Neolithic man discovered near Clachaig Falls in Arran.
On the way out I just had time for a whizz around the permanent collection of Roman sculpture from the Antonine Wall
before heading downhill to what used to be my favourite Glasgow museum, the Kelvingrove
to meet godson Alexander for a quick tea before catching the train south. Blowing bubbles from a strange 'gift' donated by a student seeking election, he had to admit that though up on the campus most days, he'd never been inside the Hunterian. Can't blame him: it took me years to visit the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh's Old College. Anyway, he and fellow student/godchild Evi had a good time the night before, getting a meal, a talk and a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert in the glorious City Halls. I may be biased, but these two - who don't, I hasten to add, see each other between my visits other than in the University Library - are as fine and good young people as any I know, wanting to do good in the world.
My train from Glasgow Central only took me as far as Penrith, where I stepped out and hit the splendid site of a much older building than the Kelvingrove, the castle with connections to much-in-vogue Richard III.
Then it was off to stay with friends in Lorton, a lovely corner of what I've always called - in the wake of a friend's Freudian slip - the Rain District. This time it started out as the Wind District, with gale force weather whipping up the waves and the spray on Crummock Water, and allowing our dear Tom Pope to be held up, strip of a being as he is, by the wind.
The elements made us take three shorter walks that Saturday rather than one long one, which allowed for love at first sight of Buttermere, a really fine lunch at the Pheasant Inn and an excursion to idyllically situated St Bega's on Bassenthwaite Lake. On Sunday morning the wind had dropped, the clouds were rolling away above Crummock Water
and blue skies headed in from the Lorton Valley in the opposite direction.
So by the time our hosts Rosanna and Anthony, seeming to dance here beyond the snowdrops on the lawn of Lorton Hall, bade us farewell, it was a vintage Lakes afternoon.