The Art of Golf: Quality trumps quantity in the Scottish National Gallery’s exhibit

The Art of Golf: Quality trumps quantity in the Scottish National Gallery’s exhibit

My wife’s oldest (in number of years known, not age!) and closest friend escaped the still unseasonably warm temperatures of California’s Central Valley to join us here in blustery Scotland for a week. So I set aside my golf hat and, as the designated driver, donned a chauffer’s chapeau so we could play the roles of proper American tourists.

The big finale was a full day in Edinburgh. We climbed up and through the imposing and impressive Edinburgh Castle that glowers over this ancient city. Then we went subterranean and took a guided tour into the bowels of Mary King’s Close, remnants of the original town that was essentially buried when the current structures were built right on top. We strolled along the Royal Mile, including past the ominous St. Gile’s Cathedral. And, of course, we ducked in and out of shops in search of souvenirs to cram into our already overstuffed suitcases for the eventual journey home.

In compensation for my time behind the wheel, however, I did manage to secure one additional stop on our agenda: the Scottish National Gallery. I appreciate and, at times, even love fine art. And this institution’s permanent collection has more than its share of it, including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainesborough. But my insistence on shoehorning this destination into our already ambitious day was driven by a special exhibition entitled, “The Art of Golf: The Story of Scotland’s National Sport.” It opened in July but would close at the end of October, so the clock was definitely ticking.

Once inside the main entrance, our little group decided to divide and conquer. Some headed to the main gallery while my wife and I found our way to the golf goodies. The former is free while the latter, alas, cost us £8 apiece. Initially, I was a bit caught off guard by that—perhaps more so after my lamentable experience at Prestwick the week before. But, on the flipside, I figured that if they were charging an entry fee then they must have assembled quite an impressive collection.

And in some ways they did, with works spanning more than 300 years. It started with a Rembrandt sketch called “The Ringball Player” depicting a Dutch precursor to Scottish golf that dates all the way back to 1654. And it ended with aerial photography of links courses from the present day, including a shot of Barry Burn, a narrow stream that works its way serpentine throughout Carnoustie—site of Ben Hogan’s lone Open championship in 1953 and Jean Van de Velde’s epic collapse in 1998. But after taking in all that there was to see in the exhibition’s three smallish rooms, I came away wanting more. Much more. Especially for the equivalent of $13.

Still, what the exhibition lacked in quantity it mostly compensated through quality. In addition to luminous paintings of North Berwick by Irish artist Sir John Lavery (including the one featured in the show’s promotional poster shown above), here were my favorite works:

The Advertisement -- This example of commercial art was underwritten by the London and North Eastern Railway to promote travel to far-flung destinations like St. Andrews along the Firth of Forth. It was imagined and rendered by Arthur C. Michael in 1939. Something tells me a framed copy will be hanging on my office wall before it's all said and done. Superb!

The Advertisement -- This example of commercial art was underwritten by the London and North Eastern Railway to promote travel to far-flung destinations like St. Andrews along the Firth of Forth. It was imagined and rendered by Arthur C. Michael in 1939. Something tells me a framed copy will be hanging on my office wall before it's all said and done. Superb!

The Golfers – This is considered to be the most famous golf painting in existence and, to their credit, the Scottish National Gallery secured the original for its exhibit. It was created by Charles Lees in 1847 and depicts an impassioned match between two red-coated members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club back in the days just prior to the rise to prominence of Old Tom Morris, arguably the father of the modern game. To some extent, the work is more journalistic than artistic as most of the people included in the frame actually existed. Intriguing!

The Golfers – This is considered to be the most famous golf painting in existence and, to their credit, the Scottish National Gallery secured the original for its exhibit. It was created by Charles Lees in 1847 and depicts an impassioned match between two red-coated members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club back in the days just prior to the rise to prominence of Old Tom Morris, arguably the father of the modern game. To some extent, the work is more journalistic than artistic as most of the people included in the frame actually existed. Intriguing!

The Prince – This portrait of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was commissioned in 1927 to commemorate the rise of a royal to the position of captain of the R&A. The story is told that the prince insisted on being portrayed in standard golfer’s garb rather than his more typical formal attire. Dashing!

The Prince – This portrait of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was commissioned in 1927 to commemorate the rise of a royal to the position of captain of the R&A. The story is told that the prince insisted on being portrayed in standard golfer’s garb rather than his more typical formal attire. Dashing!

The exhibition has come and gone, but if you'd like to know more (and/or purchase the accompanying book), just click here. As for me? Time to get back to playing golf!

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