CloseUp: James Knox – Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation

James Knox is director of the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation, which is the largest collection of Scottish art outside Scotland

What took you into your current job?

My first job, after studying History of Art at Cambridge, was as a feature writer for the Antique Collector magazine. Then I went to business school in France because I knew I wanted to work in the arts, and felt I needed to understand about cashflows and budgets. I spent 10 years running The Spectator in the 1980s, then I ran my own art consultancy business for a time. In 2005, I was approached by The Art Newspaper to be their managing director, which I did for 10 years. Then, in 2015, I was approached by the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation. I went from a huge international canvas to be very focused on Scottish art, but that was good because my international knowledge informed my critical assessment of Scottish art and architecture.

How did the Foundation come to have such a great collection?

The collection was founded in 1968 by the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co. They had a new office in London and wanted to buy Scottish art reflecting the company’s Dundonian roots. Right from the start they bought the best. When the family sold the bank in 2000, Robin Fleming bought back the art collection at market value with his cousin Lord Wyfold and placed it in a charitable foundation which aims to care for the collection and promote Scottish art and creativity across the UK and beyond.

How do you go about that?

When I took over, I developed a museum-without-walls strategy. We curate themed exhibitions of Scottish art and put them in museums across the UK and beyond. My first theme was the Scottish Colourists, which is now in its eighth iteration and has been seen by 70,000 people. I went on to develop The Glasgow Girls and Boys, and then Scottish Women Artists (currently at Dovecot Studios). This year we had five touring exhibitions on the road. We also have an education strategy, a magazine, and we support research and give bursaries. On October 12, we will announce the winner of our Emerging Scottish Artist of the Year Award.

Describe a typical day…

I don’t think there is one. I might be bidding on a rare Scottish painting at auction, or giving a virtual lecture on the Colourists, or reporting to the board, or planning a new exhibition, or talking to an art historian whose research we support.

What’s the best part of the job – and the worst? 

I really enjoy curating and promoting the exhibitions. It’s particularly rewarding outside Scotland where audiences are discovering the Scottish Colourists for the first time, for example, and are thrilled by what they see. The more prosaic side is all the admin relating to putting on the shows and looking after the collection.

Tell us about some of the highlights of the collection

It’s amazing what the Flemings bought. The earliest painting in the collection is by George Jamesone, a portrait of Robert the Bruce painted for Charles I’s Coronation in Edinburgh in 1633. We have Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Faed’s Last of the Clan, which is one of the greatest Highland Clearances pictures of all time. We have very strong Glasgow Boys and Scottish Colourist pictures, five Joan Eardleys, nine Anne Redpaths and, bringing things right up to date, we recently bought a work by Sekai Machache.

So you’re still collecting?

Yes, thanks to the success of the museum-without-walls strategy, I now have an acquisitions budget! I’m very actively buying women artists. Recently, I was able to buy a pastel portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton by Anne Forbes, one of only two professional Scottish women artists in the 18th century. Another incredibly rare picture, Fieldworkers, by Flora Macdonald Reid, is currently on loan to National Galleries of Scotland for their new Scottish galleries.

What’s the first work of art you remember seeing?

My grandfather was a great collector of art, and I always remember seeing a painting he had bought by the 19th-century French painter Henri Harpignies, a contemporary of Daubigny, of the village of Hérison. He hadn’t got round to hanging it – it was just sitting on the floor and I thought it was utterly beautiful. 

Has a work of art ever changed your life?

I think I’ve been too close to it. Looking at art has always felt very normal, it was in the DNA. I accepted it, but never took it for granted. It is one of life’s great thrills.

If you could own any work of art by any artist, what would it be?

My favourite artist of all time changes from day to day but, currently, I would be over the moon if Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden Little Sparta could be magicked in its entirety from Stonypath in Lanarkshire to my front door in Ayrshire.

Who or what inspires you?

Artists inspire me. The first artist who inspired me was Alexander Goudie who I met when I was about 18, he was a real mentor and inspiration. He let me into his studio, into his mind, and taught me how to understand and relate to artists.

What are you excited about?

I’m really looking forward to our exhibitions next year, including Scottish Women Artists at the F. E. McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge, Co. Down, when Anne Forbes’ portrait will take its place in the show for the first time.

:: Catch the following exhibitions from the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation: Scottish Women Artists: 250 Years of Changing Perception, at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, until Jan 6; Anne Redpath and her Circle at the Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, until Nov 5; Colour and Light: Scottish Colourists from the Fleming Collection, at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield, until Dec 9. For more information visit www.flemingcollection.com

Thomas Faed, 'The Last of the Clan'
Thomas Faed, ‘The Last of the Clan’
Samuel John Peploe 'Luxembourg Gardens'
Samuel John Peploe, ‘Luxembourg Gardens’
Beatrice Huntington, 'A Cellist'
Beatrice Huntington, ‘A Cellist’

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