The works shown in the Hunterian Art Gallery's new 'Enlightenment' display have all been acquired in the last six years, most of them through the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland. Over this period, the Hunterian has made significant additions to the collection, including works by Christine Borland, Anne Bevan, Mark Dion, Mat Collishaw and Ilana Halperin.
These acquisitions have underlined the extent of the many longstanding relationships between contemporary artists and the Hunterian collections; drawers of geological samples; cases of scientific and medical instruments; jars of preserved specimens, as well as works of art, have all provided rich seams of inspiration for the artists represented. The Hunterian's participation in the Collecting Scheme has coincided with a major programme of research in preparation for the institution's 2007 bicentenary. William Hunter's extraordinarily diverse collections and his involvement in the cultural life of Enlightenment London, were matched by his own acquisitions of 'contemporary' art including major works by Chardin and Stubbs. The powerful resonance of Hunter's works of art in a university museum some 230 years after his death is as much a product of the intellectual value he placed on them as it is a measure of their aesthetic and art-historical worth.
All the works shown had been developed by the artist before the Hunterian knew of them, or sought to buy them, and yet every single piece carries with it the hallmark of a piece which might have been made for the collection. While this might be put down to happy circumstance, it is in reality a reflection of the continuing power of great collections to engage and stimulate great creative minds.
Installed alongside these acquisitions is a major new work by Joanne Tatham & Tom O'Sullivan. 'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' is a suite of objects originally commissioned as a collaboration by the six museums and galleries which participated in the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland. It was created to be shown at Newhailes House, Musselburgh, owned by The National Trust for Scotland.
The work draws on a number of motifs found in the artists' practice over the last few years, specifically: shapes, patterns, textures and signs. The objects, made from lead, marble, porcelain and wood, were developed to be both in sympathy with and offer a contrast to the 17th-century domestic interior of Newhailes.
In installing the 'Rhetoric Works' at the Hunterian, a similar fusion between the historical and the contemporary has been sought.