History of The Orchar Collection

Harry Bates, James Guthrie Orchar, 1880. Marble bust. Dundee Art Galleries and Museums.

The Orchar Collection was assembled by James Guthrie Orchar (1825–1898). An inventor, engineer and successful entrepreneur, Orchar exported locally-designed and manufactured textile machinery across the world. He was also a great benefactor to the City of Dundee and to the burgh of Broughty Ferry and is best remembered today as a patron of the arts.

Orchar was a member of a powerful art lobby whose legacy was the establishment of the Albert Institute and Victoria Galleries – now The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum – which was constructed entirely as a result of private fundraising. He pioneered the promotion of contemporary Scottish art through his chairmanship of Dundee’s Fine Art Exhibition Committee which organised huge, highly successful selling exhibitions. Privately, he amassed a considerable collection which his obituarist stated ‘contained the best works of the best men’.

In its entirety, The Orchar Collection numbers some 440 works in oils, watercolours, prints, drawings and sculpture. Although not the largest local collection, it is crucially the only one to remain intact. It is lasting evidence of Dundee’s importance as an artistic centre, a snapshot of a frenzied period of collecting with heated competition to secure the best work by favoured artists. It is one of the most important surviving private collections of Scottish Victorian art and illuminates the tastes of the prosperous Scottish industrialist class.

Orchar bought contemporary artworks, often recently completed and direct from the artist. Buying contemporary work enabled him to collect the work of a new generation of Scottish artists – the Scott Lauder Group. All were students of Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh during the 1850s. They included: the Burr Brothers, John and Alexander Hohenlohe; Hugh Cameron; George Paul Chalmers; Thomas Alexander Ferguson Graham; Robert Inerarity Herdman; William McTaggart; John MacWhirter; William Quiller Orchardson and John Pettie.

Their work is characterised by its often rural subject matter, loose brushwork and bright colour. Orchar counted many of the group as friends and was particularly close to William McTaggart. The two went on sketching trips and even undertook a whistle-stop artistic tour of Europe together in 1882. McTaggart’s paintings, with their sketchy, open brushwork, were seen as progressive and controversial as they were considered to look unfinished.

The majority of The Orchar Collection is Scottish but there are a significant number of works by English and other artists – the best of the English painters are represented by the Pre-Raphaelite overtones of Frederic Leighton’s A Florentine Student. As you would expect, there are personal items in this, a personal collection. Orchar was himself an artist and there are two works by him in the Collection, The Harbour at Dort and At Muthill, Perthshire. He also commissioned a perceptive portrait from John Pettie in which he holds a compass, evidence of his success as an engineer. His wider family are also represented: his wife Catherine Nicoll in an understated portrait by McTaggart; there are two oil paintings by his son James Steel Orchar and an informal portrait by John Pettie in which Orchar junior wears his University of St Andrews graduation robes. Finally, there is McTaggart’s delicate portrait of Miss A. M. Douglas, Orchar’s niece. It seems likely that it was commissioned by Orchar but it did not formally enter the collection until 1958.

Orchar died in 1898 and made provision in his will for a gallery to house his collection. His wishes took some time to be carried out, for it was not until 1929 that The Orchar Gallery was opened in Broughty Ferry. In a house that formerly belonged to Frederick Stephens, the shipbuilder famous for building the Royal Research Ship ‘Discovery’, the collection was initially hung in a series of domestic-scale rooms. In the 1930s, a picture gallery was added to accommodate the larger oil paintings.

From the 1920s onwards The Orchar Collection continued to grow through presentations. The most notable of these were Life’s Evening by George Paul Chalmers, given by Dr and Mrs William Boyd (themselves important collectors) in 1937, and ‘And All the Choral Waters Sang’ by William McTaggart, presented by the family of Peter Saunders Brown of Linlathen in 1941.

In 1924, the Orchar Trustees purchased 12 historic works, of which four were in oils, from Orchar’s niece, Miss A. Douglas – believed to be part of his original collection. They also continued to purchase suitable works by artists already represented in the collection – including Hugh Cameron’s charming The Little Housewife, William McTaggart’s The Old Pathway and Stepping Stones, six works by John Pettie, Mrs Bell of Goldilea by Sir Henry Raeburn, Edward Arthur Walton’s Hawthorn Bank, and landscapes by Sir James Lawton Wingate and John Crawford Wintour. Significant purchases began to be made in the 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Thus, oil works by the artists Stewart Carmichael, Francis Cooper, John Duncan, Alec Grieve, Joseph Henderson, Louis Bosworth Hurt, and James McIntosh Patrick, and watercolours by artists John Gray and Alexander McPherson, entered the collection.

In 1979, under severe financial pressure, the Gallery closed and the entire collection was given to Dundee Art Galleries and Museums in 1987. Paintings from the collection have formed the core of our displays of Victorian paintings since 1989 and have regularly been shown in temporary displays. In 2008 The Orchar Gallery was opened at Broughty Castle to showcase the collection in the burgh where it was intended to be shown.

Exterior of The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. Dundee Art Galleries and Museums.

The Orchar Collection is a Recognised Collection of National Significance to Scotland, images of the entire collection are available on www.scran.ac.uk and on The McManus website www.themcmanus-dundee.gov.uk

Anna Robertson, Senior Curator of Art
Text source: PCF / The Orchar Collection: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums (Dundee City Council)
This description was originally written for a catalogue.