Culture Shock

A sample of the brilliant exhibits of the National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is an absolutely fascinating amalgamation of everything you could possibly think of, from vintage fashion to Dolly the sheep and everything in between — all for the best price of absolutely nothing. For this piece of analysis however, I’m going to be looking at the Art, Design & Fashion galleries, and examining some of my favourite exhibits on display.

The museum itself is a work of art — the grandiose architecture of the 1800s is still very prominent as you walk through the main hall

Eclipse Blue is an absolutely gorgeous and unique stoneware sculpture crafted by Matthew Chambers. Naturally, it’s situated in the ‘Pushing the Boundaries’ section of the Making & Creating gallery, and that’s exactly why I was drawn to it. The sculpture itself is very complex, constructed from ceramic layers that have been intricately positioned together to form an almost shell-like cylindrical object — however, the resulting sculpture lends itself to a more minimal aesthetic than its complexity might suggest.

‘Eclipse Blue’ — Matthew Chambers, 2011

Another way in which Chambers has ‘pushed the boundaries’ with this work is the way in which he changes the observer’s perception of ceramics as a decorative installation — traditionally, the beauty of ceramic art usually lies with whatever adorns the surface. In the case of Eclipse Blue, said surface is empty — it’s the way in which the layers have been arranged and the stone-like texture that creates the elegant and minimal aesthetic that Chambers has achieved.

It’s clear to see that Chambers has been greatly influenced by his surroundings — originating from Newport, Isle of Wight, it’s easy to see that he has made a conscious decision to replicate some of the textures he would encounter on a daily basis. The Isle of Wight has an extensive history with masonry, and many of the buildings around the Isle use locally sourced stone in their construction. To reflect this, each section is sanded and polished both before and after firing in order to achieve the characterful stone-like finish of the surfaces.

To me personally, the work also exudes a certain ‘maritime’ quality, reflected in the layered, crustacean-like sections and the resulting ‘shell’ that the sculpture resembles. Given Chambers’ surroundings on the Isle, this may well have been another source of inspiration for him, despite being not explicitly stated.

Carbon Chair’ — Bertjand Pot & Marcel Wanders, produced by Moooi in 2010

Another exhibit in the gallery that caught my eye was the Carbon Chair, designed by Bertjand Pot and Marcel Wanders in 2004.

Fiberglass Chair — Charles & Ray Eames, 1950s

The designers have created an incredible piece of functional artwork by taking something iconic — namely the Eames fiberglass chair of the 1950s — and re-inventing it as something modern and unique through the minimal use of materials — just carbon fibre and epoxy arranged in a lattice structure. The result is a piece of furniture that is weather resistant and would fit seamlessly into a variety of interiors.

The juxtaposition of the hi-tech, strong material such as carbon fibre with the delicate lace-like weave in which it has been assembled is what makes the chair so striking.

Festival of Britain Glass Set, 1951

The glassware shown here caught my eye immediately, not because of any underlying alcoholism issues but as it is memorabilia from a national exhibition I never knew existed.

The Festival of Britain took place in 1951, and celebrated British science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts. It was a crucial boost to morale for a nation that had been devastated by war just six years beforehand — the effects of which could still be seen in and around all major cities.

The motif pictured on these glasses is the emblem of the Festival; designed by Albert Games in 1948, the logo depicts Britannia, the female personification of Great Britain looking towards the north point of a compass. The full colour version incorporates red, white and blue on the bunting and around the compass to further the feeling of this being the festival of the nation. The logo itself was not only used on a variety of souvenirs and publications but also on all village signs in Bedfordshire, and can still be found in use on advertising around the South Bank Area of London. It’s a true testament to the versatility of the whole design language that emerged from the festival.

Cocktail Set — Norman Bel Geddes, 1935

This cocktail set immediately caught my eye mainly down to my magpie-esque attraction to shiny things, but also as it’s evocative of the newly emerged New York industrial era it was designed in.

Chrome was used extensively in the 1930s in the USA, especially in the booming automotive industry and it’s the use of the material here that really celebrates the city’s transformation into the economic and industrial powerhouse it is today, and perhaps is reminiscent of the culture of flashy excess that was prominent at the time.

The tall, slender glasses and shaker echo the modern New York skyline that was developing around the time of this design, with skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building only very recently completed.

Cotton Panel — JU Tournier, c1845–55

The final piece I’ve chosen to analyse from the National Museum is this gorgeously detailed cotton print from around the mid 1800s. Designed by JU Tournier, it depicts an exotic, lush rainforest landscape which at the time, most citizens of the western world could only dream of.

What really drew my attention to this piece was the bold and bright aesthetic which was not as ubiquitous back in the 19th century as it is today. However, Tournier has managed to maintain a sense of unity throughout the entire work through the use of a consistent colour palette across the landscape — most of the foliage has been printed in a soft, muted blue-green colour, which really allows the intricate details of the flowers to stand out with the lighter tones of pinks and whites.

Tournier has also incorporated the use of highlights and shadows to really give a sense of depth and density to the artwork. The busyness of the piece reflects that of a real rainforest, and everywhere the observer looks on the print, new details can be found amongst the rich foliage, such as the tropical birds, which, while vibrant and colourful, are still almost camouflaged due to the equally vivid vegetation surrounding them.

After visiting the National Museum, I then took a trip to the National Gallery, which contains a variety of paintings and busts from an assortment of artists throughout history. Again, I’m going to be analysing a few of the works on display that really captivated me.

‘South Western View’ and ‘North Western View from Ben Lomond’ — John Knox, 1810

These pieces, by Joh Knox, really capture the true natural beauty of the Scottish countryside. The gorgeous landscape of Ben Lomond has been displayed in a way that highlights the sheer scale of the formation, and the medium of oil paints is used in a way that conveys all the detail the landscape has to offer such as rocks and foliage. What I think is key about these pieces, however, is that, despite being painted over two hundred years ago, the view remains unchanged — a true testament to the beauty of the natural world.

Monarch of the Glen’ — Sir Edwin Landseer, c1851

The next piece I’ve chosen is ‘Monarch of the Glen’, by Sir Edwin Landseer. Painted around 1851, this rather majestic stag has since become well known worldwide as a symbol of the Scottish Highlands. Landseer has done an incredible job of capturing the grace and elegance of the 12-pointed deer - from its lush fur coat represented by long brush strokes to its prominent, rather ornate antlers, the animal is surrounded by an aura of nobility; Landseer’s attention to detail contrasts heavily with the foggy wilderness behind. It’s no wonder, then, that this very image come to be used on various marketing ventures and products throughout the twentieth century — it has effectively become an emblem for the more grandiose fauna nature has to offer.

Fisherman at Derwentwater’ — Thomas Fearnley, 1837

The last piece I have chosen from the National Gallery, in keeping with the theme of the others, is another oil painting depicting the awe-inspiring scenery of the British countyside. Thomas Fearnley’s ‘Fisherman at Derwentwater’ portrays a single fisherman against the imposing backdrop of the Lake District. Thomas Fearnley, a Norwegian, painted this masterpiece after spending time in England and viewing the natural beauty of the Lake District with his own eyes. A keen fisherman himself, Fearnley has depicted something that reflects his own personality in this work.

As with the previous paintings, the medium of oil paints has been used successfully to capture the environment around the figure — small, almost flick-like brush strokes show the reeds in the foreground being tormented by the wind, and larger blots of darker grey and blue hues perfectly illustrate the encroaching traditional English weather. The whole painting itself creates an emotional response within the observer — the bleak yet beautiful surroundings contrast heavily with the single figure in the foreground — a symbol for bravery and courage perhaps, or, on the other hand, loneliness and isolation.