The Society’s first honorary members included David Cameron, E A Hornel, James Paterson RSA and W S McGeorge.
When the Society was founded in 1922 there were no less than 18 patrons, who, I noticed, were not listed in the first catalogue, in alphabetical order, but quite clearly in order of social rank and standing, starting with the Lady Ardwall and then Lord Glendyne of Sanquhar. The first exhibition within two months of the Society’s original formation, opened with a splendid oration, printed at some length in the “Standard”, given by one of the first of the Society’s patrons, Sir William Younger, baronet, of Auchen Castle.
The Society was forward thinking and was conscious of the need to focus on educating Dumfries on rapidly developing trends in modern art. The type of notables invited to perform the opening ceremony changed over time, rather strikingly. In 1928 there were cautious references by the then Principal of Glasgow School of Art, John Revel, to the French fauvist painter, Henri Matisse.
In 1931 a mischievous and rather facetious speech, which chose to dwell on “modern tendencies” was delivered by the High Society, Lady Margaret Sackville, introduced to the audience as a “well known Scottish poetess”. In 1934 the Scottish dramatist, James Bridie, was invited to do the honours and chose as his theme “the artist’s fight for freedom”.
By 1936 Mr Joe Corrie, a working class coal miner and dramatist, was asked to perform the opening. He addressed the crowd on “the artist’s struggle” and advocated that the State should take over responsibility for subsidising art.
The Society, I am sure, depended for its continued existence upon the dedicated enthusiasm of local people, and local artists in particular, as it must still do today. In the 1920’s these included my grandmother, the artist Chris J Fergusson, who served on the Hanging Committee and my grandfather, David Fergusson, who served from many years as its first Co-Secretary and later Treasurer. Then my mother, the Dumfries born artist Nan Fergusson, who much later became President of the Society of Scottish Women Artists, and my father, the artist and teacher James Henderson, were involved as paid up members and exhibitors during the 1930’s.
As well as Hornel, Charles Oppenheimer and Jessie King with her husband Ernest Taylor, there were quite a number of other local personalities invovled including William Irving, Robert Dinwiddie, M H McKerrow and Balfour Law. There is just not enough time to mention properly artists like William Hannan Clarke who died tragically young in 1924, Dorothy Johnstone and her husband D M Sutherland (a great raconteour, as I can remember), Anna Hotchkis, Robert Sivell, Phyliss Bone, Alick Riddell Sturrock, Adam Bruce Thomson, Tim Jeffs, Cecile Walton and so on.
Exactly how the Society came into being, who originally proposed it and how it got off the ground is not entirely clear to me. Given that the founder members of the committee included Jessie King and Chris Fergusson, both of them energetic, creative and forceful ladies, it is perhaps not unreasonable to suppose that their friendship, at least in part, helped to bring the Society into existence, acting as a sort of catalyst.
Many other good artists, like the etcher Hugh Banner in Dumfries and David Sassoon from Kirkcudbright, played a significant part in the early running of the society. I should also mention the English book illustrator and wildlife artist Warwick Reynolds and the English etcher William Walcot. Others also played an important role, notably the distinguished but modest art master at Dumfries Academy, Robert Cairns. His fine watercolours graced the society’s early exhibitions and he briefly became the Society’s President in 1926 before he moved away to take up a teaching post in Glasgow. He was succeeded by the equally overlooked but talented and unusually named Ednie Rough as art master. He became a member of the council and hanging committee. Until his untimely death he exhibited oils and watercolours of views in Britanny and the Highlands of Scotland.
When I looked through the catalogues, I was impressed to find examples of work by practically all the prominent artists then working in Scotland, notably the group who were to become known as “the four Scottish colourists”, as well as many from other parts of Britain. After Peploe’s death and in his memory, the 1936 show included five of his oils. The list of other artists involved, all well known in the history of Scottish art today, makes impressive reading: Francis Newbery, who was the inspirational head of Glasgow school of art in its Edwardian heyday, Stanley Cursiter, (then director of the National Gallery of Scotland), the sculptor, Pilkington Jackson, (who created the Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn).
Each year, the many exhibits were divided into sections between oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and etchings and at least until world war two, arts and crafts inspired items. Even though some in the art world have tended to frown upon photography as a “genuine” art form, a regular photography section was included in the early years. The works of schoolchildren living throughout Dumfries and Galloway, for which the Society awarded prizes, were also displayed each year, supervised by their art teachers, including also my grandmother and others such as Nettie Houston the art teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy.
After 1945 other important artists, including Sir William Gillies, Anne Redpath, Sir Robin Philipson (who with his twin sister boarded here at Dumfries Academy), Penelope Beaton and Johnny Maxwell, RSA from Dalbeattie (who served for a time on its committees) came to the fore in the Society’s annual exhibitions. My grandmother continued to exhibit until shortly before her death. Her work was included in the Society’s special exhibition held in tribute to the Festival of Britain of 1951.
After my grandparents day others took over the task of driving the Society forward. Could I quickly finish up by mentioning, partly because I knew them, Cyril Wilson, an important President of the Society in the 1950’s and his wife Jane Fyfe who lived not far from here at Duncow. Also Donald Watson, the gifted bird artist from St. John’s Town of Dalry and the still much lamented Archie Sutter Watt RSW, a lovely gentleman, and an inspiration to many, from Kirkgunzeon.
The Society, with over 300 members, now looks ahead to its centenary year which will arrive, if we are spared, before we know it, and then, beyond that, it contemplates its next one hundred years.