A Short History of Dundee Art Society
by Matthew Jarron
University of Dundee Museum Services
The origins of Dundee Art Society go back to the late 19th century, when Dundee was renowned as one of the major art centres of Great Britain. The success of the flax and jute industries had created a huge increase in the city’s population, giving rise to a demand for cultural amenities and leisure pursuits. At the same time, many mill and factory owners became immensely wealthy and art was one of the principal means that they could show off their new social and cultural status. These local businessmen came together to found a museum and art gallery in the Albert Institute (now The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum) and helped to organise major art exhibitions that were the largest of their kind outside London.
All of this activity coincided with increased provision of art education in the city and an increase in employment opportunities for artists (particularly through the growth of newspaper and magazine illustration), which meant that the number of professional artists in the city grew significantly. To help promote their collective interests, a meeting was held on 14 January 1890, described as follows in the Minute Book:
“The want of an Art Association – in such an ardent art admiring centre as Dundee – wide enough in its scope to embrace, not only those practicing [sic] art professionally, but the numerous patrons and admirers likewise, having long been felt, a movement was initiated for the establishment of such an association, which resulted in a general meeting of those interested being held in the ‘Committee Room’, Albert Institute.”
The result of this meeting was the formation of the Graphic Arts Association, with woodcarver James Bremner as President and painter and political activist David Ramsay Sellars as Secretary. One of Scotland’s leading painters, William McTaggart, agreed to be Honorary President, and one of the other founding council members was the Celtic-Revival painter John Duncan, who would go on to become one of Dundee’s most celebrated artists. The Association’s first members included many notable talents such as Stewart Carmichael and C G L Phillips, both of whom would be associated with the society for over 50 years.
The Association had two classes of membership – Members were mostly professional artists, while Associates were mostly amateurs. Although the focus of activity was on promoting the interest of the city’s professional artists, throughout its history the society always had a greater number of amateur artists than professional. Notably, women were allowed to join from the start, although it would be another three years before the first female artist was elected as a Member rather than an Associate (Margaret Suttie, whose bust of Stewart Carmichael is still exhibited in the society’s rooms today).
The organisation of art classes was a key early pursuit, including an Antique Class (drawing from the classical casts in the Albert Institute) and a Life Class (drawing from a living model). In 1895 drawing from the nude was introduced, with separate classes for male and female artists. For some time the male class was run from Stewart Carmichael’s studio in the Nethergate.
The society began to hold annual exhibitions in the Albert Institute from 1893, which met with variable success as sales were generally poor and critical opinion was decidedly mixed – particularly in the late 1890s and early 1900s when symbolist art and the Celtic Revival were in vogue. Gradually audiences began to respond more favourably and by the time of the society’s 21st anniversary in 1911, it had achieved notable success and seen paintings by several of its members purchased for the city’s collection.
Under the influence of John Duncan, decorative art had become a popular pursuit and the scope of the Graphic Art Association’s activities had broadened to such an extent that it was felt necessary to change the name, in 1904, to the more general Dundee Art Society. As well as its major exhibitions in the Albert Institute, the society was also now holding frequent smaller shows in its own rooms. The society first rented its own accommodation in 1900 in 104 Nethergate, sharing premises with the Dundee Institute of Architecture, Science & Art. It later moved to the Queen’s Hotel and then to South Tay Street before purchasing its current home in Roseangle in 1949.
During both the First and Second World Wars, one of the incumbent presidents (John Milne Purvis and James McIntosh Patrick respectively) was called up for military service along with various other members, but mercifully there were no fatalities recorded among the membership and the society continued to increase in popularity, reaching over 300 members by the 1940s. The post-war era saw a major expansion of the city’s Art College and many of its new tutors became active members, including Alberto Morrocco and David McClure, and a new Student Associate membership class attracted many younger members. It was only in the 1980s that the gap between professional and amateur artists widened dramatically, caused partially by the growth of conceptual and installation artforms as well as the development of a new research culture within the Art College as it started awarding degrees instead of diplomas. Although longstanding members such as McIntosh Patrick and James Reville continued to support the society, its membership since then has largely comprised amateur artists. Membership numbers have remained strong, however, and the society has continued an active programme of exhibitions and events, and is now one of the longest-running art associations in the country.