17 July 2016
When Alison Auldjo began converting a former charity shop into the second incarnation of the Union Gallery, removing a lowered ceiling and turning a pokey back storage room into a well-lit stairwell, she knew exactly the picture she wanted in the space. It was Phil Braham’s Ophelia Bathing, a painting she had seen in the Scottish Gallery a few years ago, when it was ‘best in show’ but went unsold. “I went to see him to tell him about the new place, ‘Phil, come and see the space, you will see exactly what I mean about your painting’,” she said. The work uses a backdrop from the Water of Leith; Ophelia is bathing, not drowning, It is unobtrusively thought-provoking: the bather’s shoulders above smooth water, calmly swimming a ladylike breast-stroke, in a moment of reflection, before Hamlet stirs things up.
Auldjo put a second considerable picture by Braham in the window of her gallery for its reopening a few weeks back. The work, 21st Century Sublime, shows rolling hills around a Scottish valley cloaked in misty skies, the kind of view you’d find coming down from a Munro, but Graham’s last touch was to put a fighter jet flicking across it. “We have all seen scenes like that in the Highlands. It’s eery, it’s quite bleak, but it’s beautiful,” said Auldjo. My first ill-thought guess is Glencoe; but it’s more the gentler landscape of Aviemore, where two low-flying planes roared past on a recent walk, their sound gathering behind them.
When Auldjo closed the Union Gallery in Broughton Street, after seven years on a wonderfully prominent corner of one of Edinburgh’s couthiest streets, I had wondered if she would really be back. There are too many stories of galleries that seem to wilt under pressure: in Edinburgh the old Doggerfisher, the recently downsized Ingleby Gallery, in London the impact of skyrocketing real estate. I’ve heard old dealers lately saying traditional Scottish art markets are dead, and artists facing hard times, though that is not exactly new.