"Away to the West" -The Blyth Collection
William McTaggart's 'Away To The West' is the first painting to be chosen as one of our objects and the first piece in the extraordinary Blyth Collection.
As his grandson and our guest writer Michael Portillo recalls, linen manufacturer John W. Blyth had an interest in art that was neither superficial nor tokenistic. He was a true art lover and his was a truly world-class collection.
Blyth would often nip home during his lunch hour to view his paintings. With the Collection now housed in our own local gallery, where Blyth was Honorary Curator for 36 years, we too can savour this extraordinary collection. This is the story of how it came to be.
In depth written study
The team behind this project were delighted, when Michael Portillo took up our invitation to become our first guest writer. Today’s generation know Michael Portillo as a TV personality and journalist, whilst older heads remember him principally as a politician and government minister, who reached cabinet level.
Michael Portillo however, has an affinity and connection with the “Lang Toun” which stretches back to his childhood. The connection with Kirkcaldy comes from his Mother Cora, who was the youngest daughter of John W. Blyth, a manufacturer and avid art collector. Readers would have to be over 60 years of age to remember his linen factory in Park Road being operational. However, unlike much of Kirkcaldy’s industrial past, part of Hawklymuir Linen Factory is still standing, and has been converted into tasteful flats which stand on the corner of Lawson Street and Park Road.
The team had always wanted to focus on the outstanding collection of paintings which Kirkcaldy Art Gallery possesses. That is in no small way is down to the efforts, energy and generosity of John Blyth. John has been dead for nearly sixty years, and even now , Kirkcaldy’s cultural debt to the man cannot be overstated.
At the same time, his name is not well known in his native town, and that is why he has been selected as one of our early narratives. The man and his deeds require and deserve to be brought into a brighter light. For too long he has remained little known in his native town. The main narrative has been couched in two strands – a child’s recollection of his Grandfather, allied to an appreciation of John Blyth by the team.
The in-depth narrative is in three parts with firstly, an outline of Michael Portillo’s connection to Kirkcaldy examined. Mention is made of his 2003 TV efforts to save part of the Nairn building which sadly failed, and that piece of the town’s industrial past went the way of many others in 2014.
The central section is a breathless reminiscence of train journeys to Kirkcaldy, collected at the Station by a uniformed chauffeur, playing in his Grandfather’s factory, formal dining to the beating of a gong, swimming, adventures in a large garden, jellyfish and above all, the childlike fear – would one of these huge paintings fall on me? All these memories spring from the mind of a boy of under 10, but vividly and evocatively expressed by a man’s vocabulary and hand.
John Blyth started in art collection in 1909 the year after he married and the year in which he built Wilby House. This was to be his home for the rest of his life and where he raised his family of three daughters. Eventually the walls of every room became covered in paintings.
John collected for his own tastes, and he was particularly fond of the works of Scottish landscape painters William McTaggart and George Wingate. His tastes expanded over the years, and in the 1920’s, he began collecting the works of Samuel J. Peploe, following that up in the 1940’s with the English Artist Walter R. Sickert. These four were his principal favourites and the backbone of his collection.
Wilby House soon outgrew the collection and John began to lend his paintings to the new Kirkcaldy Art Gallery. He took an interest from the first day it opened its doors, and, served as Honorary Curator from 1925 until his death in 1962. He was chairman of The Scottish Modern Artists Association and served as a trustee of the National Gallery of Scotland from 1944 until his death.
John Blyth felt a responsibility to support his local gallery, and over 100 of his paintings were housed in the Art Gallery at any one time. His collection was numerically almost split in two. Half were in the Art Gallery and half in Wilby House, but he never considered them as two separate collections. On his death – his family sold 118 of his paintings to Kirkcaldy Town Council at a vastly reduced price, to ensure the Gallery stayed in good health and the Kirkcaldy public had the opportunity to see high quality works of art, even after his death.
It is no exaggeration to say that in terms of Scottish Contemporary Art – Kirkcaldy was in many ways the jewel in the crown. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh did not open until 1999. Scotland’s best known and largest collection of fine art – that of Sir William Burrell did not have a permanent gallery in Glasgow until 1983. Make no mistake – Kirkcaldy led the way – thanks to John Blyth.
Please read the longer narrative to gain more detail of Kirkcaldy’s cultural giant, and the grandson, who came to public fame and prominence, but has never forgotten Kirkcaldy.