James Holloway, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a busy but contented man doing what is for him “the best job in the world”.
He was born in England with a Welsh mother and English father. He studied The History of Art at the Courtauld Institute. During this time he carried out his still most memorable campaign â€“ to save a Titian painting, Diana of Actaeon, which had been on loan to the nation by Lord Harwood but was possibly about to be sold.
“I organised a march” he recalls, with a huge smile, “but wasn’t really sure how to go about it. I went to the local police station and asked for advice. The policeman wanted to know how many people I expected to march. So I said about 37. “Thirty seven thousand,” asked the policeman. “Well, no,” I replied, “about 37 people”. The policeman asked what it was about. So I told him we were demonstrating to save Diana of Actaeon and he asked me how that was spelt so I started saying Dian â€¦”I can spell Diana,” he said,” it’s the other one. And by the way we’ll try and get some plain clothes policemen to swell the numbers.” James relates this story with great glee and, yes they marched and yes, the picture was saved.
James’ first job was “making the coffee” at the National Gallery of Scotland under Keith Andrews who, he says, taught him a great deal. There followed over eight years in Cardiff at the National Museum. When he got the chance to come back to Edinburgh as Deputy Keeper to Duncan Thomson he leapt at the chance. “I love this city, I really feel at home here and I love the Gallery. When I was appointed Director the Chairman of the Trustees, The Countess of Airlie told me my main task was to fight for the Portrait Gallery so it will thrive and survive.”
The best of times thus far in James Holloway’s career was in December 2007. He says, “We heard that the Heritage Lottery fund and the Scottish Government were each donating Â£5m towards our Â£17m target in order to fund the complete refurbishment of the Gallery. That gave us the green light to go ahead.”
As for the worst of times, this was when he was working in Cardiff and felt he was in the wrong place. It was a tricky time and James even thought of changing careers. “I really wanted to be back in Scotland and thought perhaps I should do something completely different. Then the job came up in Edinburgh!”
A missed opportunity for James happened when he was the Courtauld Institute and he was offered the chance to study life drawing at the Slade. “I wish I’d done it. It was a fantastic opportunity and I was not clever enough to take it.” The other mild regret is at one point he was asked to be bouncer at the Edinburgh Playhouse and turned it down, though this remains an unfulfilled ambition.
To relax, he confides that he has once again taken up playing the French Horn on the original instrument he had when he was a boy. James lives in the New Town and has very understanding neighbours. He practises in his lunch hour in the kitchen and so far doesn’t seem to have had any complaints. Once, though, after hours, he was practising in the main hall at the gallery and just as he was launching into full volume the entire security system swung into action so he made his excuses to the security guards and left in something of a hurry. It is not recorded whether or not James roared away on his motorbike which he occasionally uses to go to work, though more often he walks.
James is part of a large, extended family and they regularly have family gatherings where over 50 of his relations meet in Edinburgh, including 10 children belonging to his brothers and sisters. His family means a great deal to him and one gets the sense are a great support.
He has three heroes: Duncan Thomson, his predecessor at the Gallery who he calls “original, inspiring, with high standards and great imagination about what could be done.” His second is Brian McMaster, who was Director of the Edinburgh International Festival for 15 years and the third is, of course Titian, who he describes as “Up there with the Gods.”
He has no hesitations about his next big challenges. “Mastering the French horn and raising money to complete the Portrait Gallery renovations.”
The Scottish National Portrait gallery will close in April 2009 when the builders will move in and the collections will be archived. The projected completion date is November 2011.
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