History of the Harry and Margery Boswell Art Collection

‘An Ceo Draiochta’ by Barbara Rae, ©Barbara Rae CBE RA

The Boswell Art Collection was founded in 1995 with the ambition to reflect the best of modern and contemporary Scottish art. It was conceived as a memorial to Harry A. Boswell, by his wife Margery Boswell, to celebrate and share his enthusiasm for Scottish history and culture. Harry spent most of his life in the United States, where he worked as a successful lawyer and real estate investor, but Scotland always held special place in his heart.

As a child, Harry had learnt of his family’s ancestral home at Balmuto Castle, near Kirkcaldy in Fife, and would spend many years restoring the castle in later life. He would often visit the nearby auction houses of Edinburgh during this time in search of artworks for his own collection. Some of his favourite artists included John Houston, Elizabeth Blackadder and Robin Philipson, to name just a few who are now represented in the Boswell Collection. When Harry died in 1990, thoughts on how best to commemorate him turned to the keen interest in Scottish art he had cherished.

The most compelling proposal was to build an art collection in Harry’s memory. Regular annual purchases of modern and contemporary artworks would allow for longevity and continued relevance, helping foster conversations and spark ideas. Consolidating the family’s strong links to Fife, the Collection was to be based at the University of St Andrews, where one of his sons had attended. Here, it would serve as a teaching resource as well as a memorial.

The Boswell Committee was established following discussions with the University’s newly founded St Andrews Scottish Studies Institute (SASSI). The SASSI was an interdisciplinary body responsible for the encouragement of all aspects of Scottish studies across the University. Staff and students from various departments formed its membership and Dr Tom Normand, an eminent scholar and lecturer in Scottish art, represented the School of Art History. Normand was ideally suited to recommend artworks and promising artists for the new Collection, and its development owes much to his vision and dedication. The artist Steven Campbell even created a vibrant mixed-media Portrait of Tom Normand (1998), making him one of the Collection’s treasures in more ways than one.

The Committee’s first acquisition was a suite of prints titled Thursday’s Child in 1995. The portfolio was produced by the Dundee Printmakers Workshop and comprised of prints by some of the leading names in Scottish art, including Barbara Rae and John Houston, as well as younger artists such as Elaine Shemilt and Elspeth Lamb. As a group, the prints provided the Collection’s initial grounding and set the tone for future collecting. Exemplifying great diversity and breadth, they fit perfectly with the Committee’s aims to provide a comprehensive sample of Scottish art. 

Over the years, the Collection has continued to embrace works of both historic and contemporary significance. William McCance’s Tree Trunk Composition (1920-8), for example, now sits alongside Katie Paterson’s Future Library (2014), an art project that involved planting a forest in Norway to supply the paper for a special book anthology to be printed in 100 years’ time. This chronological breadth and encouragement to think forward as well as back is one of the Collection’s key strengths, as is its thematic diversity and stylistic range. Figurative works by Ken Currie such as his ghostly Story from Glasgow series (1989), for example, find a counterpart in the later cloth-like abstractions of Alison Watt’s Untitled (2004). Urban themes and challenging social issues, on the other hand, unite and prompt parallels between other works such as Currie’s Age of Uncertainty (1992) and the scenes of childhood precarity photographed in the Gorbals by David Peat (1968).

These works amongst others seek to widen perspectives and, in 2014, steps were taken to expand the official remit of the Collection itself. In addition to the traditional media categories of sculpture, prints, photography and painting, other ‘forms of visual art’ were now eligible for inclusion. This has enabled the Collection to remain responsive to present-day practices, both artistic and art historical.

Indeed, a selection of the Collection’s works can be found in the School of Art History on North Street. Hanging on the walls and in the stairwells of the building, sculptures and pictures are put in close proximity to learning and critical thought. Here, they encourage students and visitors to explore and ask questions: how can art lead to a sense of belonging? How can it make someone feel at home? What actually constitutes ‘Scottishness’ in art?

In recent years, these questions have become all the more crucial as the Collection seeks to reflect current debates in the study of Art History. Major acquisitions have included artworks that address important issues such as gender and transnationalism. In 2018, for example, the Collection acquired a number of works by the designer collaborative Atelier E.B, whose engagement with feminism, football, and fashion ask us to think differently about the separation of spheres. In 2019, Maud Sulter’s important photographic series Significant Others (1993) also joined the Collection. These large-scale photographic prints offer a powerful starting point for reflecting upon inherited histories, both national and familial.

The Collection continues to acquire works that actively support learning and creative inquiry across the University. Indeed, thanks to the Boswell family’s continued generosity and the dedication of the Committee, the Collection’s future assuredly looks as bright as its past.

Author Details:

Clare Fisher is a PhD student in the School of Art History funded by the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities. Her research explores the discourse of monumentality in the United States from the Civil War to the present day.