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'Work hard and live very simply'

By Susan Mansfield, 27.09.2021
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Steven MacIver, Duomo I. Courtesy the artist.

Take ten new art and architecture graduates. Give them the means to spend three months in Florence, exploring and developing their practice. Shake well and allow the fruits to come to the surface, perhaps now, perhaps decades later.

The RSA’s John Kinross Scholarship, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year with a special exhibition, has been described as 'the most important scholarship the RSA is operating just now, and one of the most significant in its history'. Since 1981, it has supported over 450 emerging artists and architects and distributed over £730,000 in funds.

Artists who have taken part include Kenny Hunter, Chantal Joffe, Jessica Harrison, Frank Convery, Robbie Bushe and Andrew Cranston. Each scholar gifts work from their trip to the RSA’s Kinross Collection which has grown into one of Scotland’s most important collections of emerging art. 

Chantal Joffe, Self Portrait with Arms Raised. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro.

Sandy Wood, RSA collections coordinator, says: 'What’s so interesting about the John Kinross Collection is you can see artists’ and architects’ work when they were emerging. Often that work would be lost because people wouldn’t keep it, but in terms of understanding of an artist’s practice, it’s quite important.'

The scholarship was established by financier John Blythe Kinross CBE in memory of his father, the leading Scottish architect John Kinross (1855-1931), who had spent an influential period in Florence as a young man. The first scholars were given rigorous instructions to 'work hard and live very simply' and 'produce a substantial body of work as evidence of study'.

Over time, the guidelines became more flexible, but the ethos remained the same, offering emerging artists the chance to immerse themselves in a city of artistic and architectural masterpieces. While art practice has changed significantly in 40 years, the appeal of the scholarship is undimmed.

Jihoon Son, We meme Florence, after Lodovico Salvettis marble Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclusas, as per the proposed scheme for restoration by Petro Tacca. courtesy of Collections of the Royal Scottish Academy.

Sandy Wood says: 'What we always get back from the scholars, just about every one, is that it was a life-changing experience for them. No matter how art changes, what can be inspiring to artists or architects is always going to be the same.'

Meanwhile, the Kinross Collection is an important barometer of the changes in art in the past four decades. Early works deposited were exclusively drawing and painting, but it now includes printmaking, photography, mixed media, sound and film, and has the most time-based art of any RSA collection.

Recent scholars have pushed the boundaries still further with site specific projects, an invented currency and Jihoon Son’s We meme Florence, which included a drawing of Cellini’s bronze Perseus holding the head of the Medusa with the severed head of Donald Trump.

Mary Bourne, Inhabit. Courtesy the artist.

The exhibition, 'Andiamo! Forty Years of the John Kinross Scholarship', has selected five scholars from each decade and invited them to a show a piece of work from their time in Florence next to a piece of recent work. In some cases, the works contrast; in others it’s possible to trace the inspiration of Florence still shining through.  

Artist Mary Bourne, who curated the show with assistance from architect Fergus Purdie, wrote in the accompanying publication about how the impact of her residency (in 1985) only became clear to her much later. 'It was only when I returned to Tuscany on a residency 30 years later than I became aware of how the things I had seen as a Kinross scholar had stayed with me and continued to inform my work. Returning to Florence and Pisa felt like a return to some sort of base-line from which I had been working ever since.'

Chantal Joffe wrote that, when she went to Florence, immediately after graduating from Glasgow School of Art, she felt she was 'doing it all wrong'. But when she returned to the UK and started her MA at the Royal College of Art and 'something brand new seemed to burst out of me…I didn’t want to paint from life anymore. I wanted to make art about how I really felt and thought… The lessons I finally learned from the Kinross scholarship have stayed with me forever.'

Wendy McMurdo, Madonna and Duomo, 1986. Courtesy the artist.

Andiamo! Forty Years of the RSA John Kinross Scholarships to Florence, until 17 October, RSA Upper Galleries, free entry, booking advised.