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Peploe, Madonna and Kirkcaldy Galleries

By Neil Cooper, 16.03.2023
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Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist (1520) courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries

Neil Cooper takes a look at the ‘Tate Gallery of Scotland’ and discovers the many treasures within Kirkcaldy Galleries' impressive art collection

When Kirkcaldy Galleries were dubbed the ‘Tate Gallery of Scotland’ in lectures by its first Convenor, local linen manufacturer John Blyth, the hype was due to the Galleries’ impressive collection of Scottish Colourist paintings. The accolade has stuck, and continues to capture the expanse of the Fife town’s main exhibition space. Not only does the gallery built in 1925 hold the largest collection of paintings by William McTaggart (1835-1910), it also has the second largest collection of works by Samuel Peploe (1871-1935) outside the National Galleries of Scotland, and many significant works by the Glasgow Boys.

More recently, an adventurous contemporary strand has been introduced, with works by the likes of Alison Watt now included in the collection. A £2.5m refurbishment of the building undertaken by Fife Council in 2013 has seen the Galleries expand operations, so it now houses a museum, library, PC suite, café and gift shop, as well as spaces for community and educational work.

Samuel Peploe, Park Scene (1910) courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries

While permanent exhibitions include the forty-six paintings that make up The Peploe Collection, recent temporary shows have included a major Jack Vettriano exhibition. At time of writing, exhibitions include Somewhere to Stay, an installation by Diana Forster that tells the story of a Polish refugee driven from her home during World War II, and her long struggle to find refuge. 

Another significant display is Unveiling the Madonna, which reveals an ongoing detective story investigating the history behind the 500-year-old Italian renaissance painting, ‘The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist’. Up until recently, the oldest work in Kirkcaldy’s collection was believed to be by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530). A new line of inquiry, however, points to Domenico Puligo (1492-1527, known for his success with Madonna paintings, as its creator.

State of art hi-tech infrared photography that can see beneath the paint has also revealed a charcoal underdrawing that point to how the painting’s composition was developed. Whoever was responsible, how the Madonna and Child painting made its way from Italy to Fife has also been researched, as has the seeming existence of a hitherto unknown and now lost gallery space set up in Fife.

“There’s lots of mystery there, “ says Kirke Kook, one of the Galleries’ Collections curators, who has overseen the Unveiling the Madonna presentation. “It all started when John Gash, who is a lecturer in art history at Aberdeen University came to us looking for another Renaissance painting, and we brought this one to his attention.

“It’s still unclear exactly when the painting came to Scotland, but we believe it was brought here by Alexander Woodcock, a retired Royal Navy surgeon, who set up his own museum in Anstruther with his own funds. The painting was in Anstruther for a very long time, then in the 1980s became part of the museum’s collection.”

Beyond the investigation of the painting itself, the discovery of Woodcock’s Anstruther museum was another unexpected delight.

“It had been completely forgotten about,” says Kook. “Even the local history groups in Anstruther didn’t know anything about it, so it was a really interesting discovery.”

The creation of Kirkcaldy Galleries is down largely to John Nairn, a wealthy businessman at the heart of the town’s then thriving linoleum industry. Nairn funded the building of a war memorial on the site of Balsusney House after his son was killed in the Great War of 1914-1918. 

“There was a real move to do something in the aftermath of the War,” Kirkcaldy Galleries Exhibitions Curator Lesley Lettice points out, “and there were a lot of influential people around, fairly wealthy businessmen, who were interested in collecting art, who drove the idea to have a gallery where the people of Kirkcaldy could see all this great work, and to start a public collection that was independent of their own private collections.”

Many of the paintings that make up Kirkcaldy’s Peploe Collection come from the collection of John Blyth.

“In 1964, Kirkcaldy Town Council bought 116 paintings from Blyth’s collection for the princely sum of £9,000,” says Lettice. “Twenty-four of those paintings were Peploes, and since then we’ve gradually built on that.”

Samuel Peploe, Lillies, courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries

By the time the 150th anniversary of Peploe’s birth was celebrated in 2021, Kirkcaldy Galleries and its assorted sister venues were being run by Fife Cultural Trust, which oversees cultural activity across the region.

“There are things going on all the time,” says Lettice. “The exhibitions are at the heart of what we do, and the collection is massive, but because Kirkcaldy Galleries is an integrated facility, we have lots of different groups coming in, and lots of activities based around the exhibitions. Like everybody else, it’s been a bit of a long haul to get back to normal since COVID, but we’re getting there now. The Galleries have become a bit of a hub.”

A selection from the Samuel Peploe collection is on show at Kirkcaldy Galleries. Works by Peploe not on display can be viewed by appointment at the OnFife Collections Centre at Unveiling the Madonna runs until 13th November 2023. Somewhere to Stay by Diana Forster runs until 14th May 2023.