One of my earliest memories of Dundee is of The McManus. After all, it’s not the sort of building you forget; with its sweeping external staircase and rather more severe Gothic steeple it’s a beguiling contradiction that’s part Walt Disney, part Hammer Horror. On that particular occasion I saw it only in passing, upon exiting McDonalds on Reform Street, which at that time had toadstools for seats, on what might have been my final evening in the city before departing Scotland for Australia, which was to be my new home.
I was never schooled in Dundee, meaning that when I intermittently returned to the area as a teenager it was one of the first museums I visited of my own volition. I had taken to stocking up on art supplies at Burns & Harris on the corner of Commercial Street, and immediately recognised the building at the centre of Albert Square as the same one as before. I kept going back whenever I was in the area. By now I have probably been to Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum more times than any other museum in the world, which is more than a little surprising given that there isn’t a single dinosaur to be found on display in the whole building.
But frankly The McManus doesn’t need one, for what I have always found most fascinating is its showcase of Dundee’s recent past, as opposed to the area’s ancient history. The Making of Modern Dundee is a comprehensive and compelling guide to the city’s current culture, chronicling its shipbuilding and whaling industries, its association with jute, jam and journalism, and its more recent standing as a centre for design and video game development. From the ceiling hangs the skeleton of the Tay whale, an unfortunate humpback that found its way into the river, against all odds, only to be harpooned, stuffed and sent on a posthumous tour of the country before its bones were finally donated back to Dundee; while display cases around it contain everything from old board games to antique cash registers.
Down the hall lies Landscape and Lives, which rather ambitiously aims to cover 400 million years of history in only a handful of display cabinets. No dinosaurs, then, but plenty of fossils, as well as a number of stuffed and replica specimens representing wildlife that once called the Tay valley home. Some, like the wolf, elk and brown bear are long gone, while others, like the beavers, lynx and eagles, have or might one day find themselves reintroduced thanks to the rewilding movement that’s slowly gathering momentum. As for lives, the exhibit features longboats, clothing and Pictish art that fills in the human side of the story, though its still something of a jump to the football strips and whaling ships of the previous section. (I know I said it was the recent past that interested me here, but you’ve still got to keep your inner child entertained when you can.)
That said, on my most recent visit to The McManus it was a third permanent exhibition upstairs in the Albert Hall that held my attention the longest. Dundee and the World displays the once private collections of people like jute baron James Key Caird, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who was for a time one of the richest men in 19th Century Britain, and whose business interests in Egypt and America together with his involvement in funding the 1914 Ernest Shackleton expedition resulted in a dizzying array of artifacts, from Native American headdresses to Ancient Egyptian cartonnages. I was reminded of my visit to Discovery Point, across town at Riverside, where the RRS Discovery is docked, and of a display devoted to missionary Mary Slessor I had stumbled across on a visit to The Steeple Church. I think it’s about time I stopped defaulting to Brian Cox and Loraine Kelly when asked if anyone noteworthy came from Dundee.
The part of the exhibition that I became preoccupied with was that celebrating the exploits of two female travel writers who I had somehow never heard of, despite the exhibit’s apparent permanence. Information boards on the backs of the display cases document another expedition, a round-the-world trip made by a pair of DC Thomson journalists — Marie Imandt and Bessie Maxwell — back in 1894. Titled Dundee’s Two Intrepid Ladies, it combines quotes, illustrations and readings of their accounts to tell the story of their adventure. It all started with a function in the McManus (rather than a Happy Meal at McDonalds), after which they travelled down to London, then on to Paris, Florence, Cairo, Delhi, Kyoto, Toronto and San Francisco, before returning to work at the paper. It’s interesting to see these locations through Dundonian eyes, particularly as Imandt rules that the conditions for jute mill workers were in fact better in India, while labelling opium smoking in China as “certainly far less beastly than whisky drinking [in Scotland]”. The women also seemingly preempted the naming of San Francisco’s then unopened bridge, describing the strait as a “golden gate” and immediately setting it apart from the silvery Tay back home.
However, this was no impromptu visit, and I had other things to attend to. I had arranged to meet Kevin McGinley and Chris Burgess from Leisure and Culture Dundee for a tour of the museum’s latest attraction, A Trio of Drawing Exhibitions. The point of the series, I was told, was to inspire anyone to pick up a pencil by deconstructing and democratising the artistic process — which certainly explained the inspirational quotes stenciled onto the walls. Starting with the most fleeting of the exhibits, titled Work In Progress: From Paper to Paint*, I was invited to look past the finished works to see the plain paper and preliminary sketches that had invariably preceded the first brushstroke. The collection includes an early version of John Phillip’s A Scotch Fair, the completed piece currently on display in Aberdeen Art Gallery, and a sketch of Marie Stillman, a model and artist in her own right, who posed for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Dante’s Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice, which can be seen in full hanging on the wall behind it.
We continued into the DC Thomson Gallery for Draw the Line: Old Masters to The Beano, which seeks to demonstrate the variety and versatility of illustration across media, academia and perceived levels of proficiency. The collection, split into small sections, includes comic book strips, satirical cartoons, scientific illustrations, anatomical studies, war drawings, religious artworks and architectural records. It was the former that first caught my eye, and having become disillusioned with art as a subject at school thanks to my teacher’s disregard of cartoons I took some solace in knowing that here at least it was recognised for the artform that it clearly is. On loan from DC Thomson were strips featuring The Broons, Minnie the Minx and Pinky’s Crackpot Circus. I also noted that so-called amateur artists had their place in the display too, with “compulsive draughtsmen” (and draughtswomen, whatever that means) such as Charles S Lamb and Amelia Long taking pride of place on the wall: he produced guidebooks with his brother, featuring his drawings of Dundee’s medieval buildings, which were destined to be adapted by professional artist William Gibb for a book titled The Quaint and Historic Buildings of Dundee, while she embarked on an horticultural study of her Bromley estate.
Lastly, we entered the Courier Gallery for the final piece of the exhibition, Taking a Line for a Walk, which takes its name from the famous Paul Klee quote. This section is a celebration of the many ways subjects can be interpreted, and the various means with which an artist’s vision can be realised. The gallery features three vastly different depictions of trees, from Tim Knowles’ Larch on Easel, Buttermere Shore #1, which was acheived by attaching a pencil to the end of a branch and letting the tree draw itself, to Franziska Furter’s Summerwine, which comprises seven panels tacked to a wall to reveal a larger graphite image on white paper, to Massimo Bartolini’s Nespolo, a shadow produced by scratching a design into Plexiglas with drypoint. Unconventional, sure, but an effective way of showing that art can be just about anything you want it to be. One of the aforementioned “inspirational quotes” reads: “Isn’t it amazing what a pencil can have inside”, which is attributed to Joaquin Salvador Lavido, aka Quino, and as hokey as it sounds you really do leave the galleries with a notion to find out. My old art teacher be damned.
And that was that; I thanked Kevin and Chris for their time and insights, bade them farewell, and returned home, to look out my old Oor Wullie annuals, rewild some brown bears and draw a picture of a tree drawing me. That is, of course, unless DC Thomson wants to send me around the world after Marie Imandt and Bessie Maxwell. I could even bring back some dinosaur bones, for next time.
*Work In Progress: From Paper to Paint will end its run on Sunday, January 31st. More information about the different exhibitions can be found here.