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27 Oct 2020

Behind the scenes of the ‘From Camera to Canvas’ exhibition

Written by Ben Reiss, Morton Photography Project Curator
A woman and a man leaning over a book. The woman is checking the surface of the book carefully using a torch.
Condition checking a book ahead of its installation in a case in the gallery space
On 7 November, the exhibition ‘E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas’ will open at the Edinburgh City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

Although this will be the moment the exhibition finally opens to the public, work on it began over two years ago, in the summer of 2018. A timeframe like this (or even longer) is not unusual for exhibitions of this nature. Museums and galleries plan their programmes years in advance, and a huge amount of unseen work goes into producing the finished exhibition over that time.

The journey of E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas started soon after I took up my post at the National Trust for Scotland as the Morton Photography Project curator. One of the key aims of this project is to raise the profile of our photographic collections, especially the collection compiled by artist E A Hornel, now stored at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright, which was his home and his studio.

Three men wrapping a painting in white material. The painting is lying on the floor of a gallery, with other paintings and statues on the walls.
Paintings being soft-wrapped for transit (in materials like bubble wrap and plastic) in the gallery at Broughton House. You can see some of the works not coming to the exhibition still on the walls

The City Art Centre in Edinburgh has a remit to showcase Scottish visual art and photography, as well as their own collections. As our proposed exhibition combined both Scottish visual art and photography, and the City Art Centre hold several paintings by Hornel in their collections, this was a good fit for them. However, we still had to apply to be accepted into their exhibition schedule, and collaborate with curators at the City Art Centre to make sure E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas would be a perfect fit.

The inside of a wooden crate. The crate is lined with black foam, and a painting wrapped in white material lies inside.
Sometimes paintings are packed into crates instead of being soft-wrapped

Once we knew the exhibition would open in November 2020, the hard work of actually developing it could begin! There are approximately 80 paintings by Hornel at Broughton House, as well as c1,700 photographs used by him to create his art. Not to mention the large number of books, photographic equipment, studio furniture and other ephemera that we could choose from.

By focusing on the themes we wanted to get across, we were able to whittle down all the potential options to a list of paintings, photos and other items that told the story of the photographs behind Hornel’s art. We were keen to use this opportunity to showcase paintings from the collection that are usually kept in storage, as well as examples from the extensive photography collection.

A painter’s palette on a wooden table. Someone wearing green latex gloves is carefully using a brush to clean the surface of the palette.
This palette is being given a light clean ahead of transit. It was cleaned more thoroughly in a specialist conservation studio before going on display

Choosing what to display is only the start of the process though. The condition of every item has to be checked by conservators to ensure it can be displayed. They recommend treatment that might be required to prepare items for the exhibition, and carry it out if necessary. Our registrar manages the loan agreement with the City Art Centre, and ensures everything is suitably insured. As objects move around the country (from Broughton House to conservation studios and on to the gallery) our Collections Information team keep object locations up to date in our database.

Five paintings wrapped in plastic leaning against a wall painted dark green.
Some of the paintings at the City Art Centre before being hung on the walls

Everything is now at the City Art Centre, ready to be installed ahead of the exhibition opening on 7 November. Specialist art couriers were used to move the paintings, and the City Art Centre’s team of technicians will undertake the actual installation. By the time visitors are allowed in, everything will be on the walls, looking spick and span.

A woman and a man leaning over a book. The woman is checking the surface of the book carefully using a torch.
Condition checking a book ahead of its installation in a case in the gallery space

But an exhibition is not just the works of art on the walls. Interpretation to help visitors understand the art and exhibition themes has to be written, edited and designed. We invited authors to contribute essays to a book exploring the exhibition themes in more depth (soon to be available from our online shop). These had to be collated, edited and matched with images from the exhibition. The book itself has been designed, printed and distributed.

An extensive events programme has been put together with the City Art Centre, featuring dozens of lectures, workshops and other events to further engage visitors with the exhibition. We’ve had to think about how to evaluate the exhibition, in terms of what visitors think about it and whether it’s been a success. A marketing and communications plan has been drawn up to advertise the exhibition and encourage interest in it. We even have to arrange legal agreements between the Trust and the City Art Centre to manage the production and sale of exhibition merchandise.

The front cover of the book 'E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas'. The image on the cover is a painting of a Japanese woman playing a shamisen, with a photo of the same woman superimposed on it.
The book that accompanies the exhibition will be on sale soon

With just a few months to go before the exhibition opened, and with funding applications and conservation lined up to take place over the summer, the UK was put into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Sites at both the Trust and the City Art Centre were closed and large numbers of staff were furloughed. One of the consequences (among many far more serious ones) was that work on the exhibition ground to a halt. When it restarted, it was in a very different world with a different set of requirements. The scale of the exhibition had to be reduced and events pushed into 2021. But thanks to a lot of hard work and flexibility from everyone involved behind the scenes, E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas is still ready to open on time.

Like a swan, all this energetic paddling beneath the surface should result in a serene and engaging exhibition that provides an insight into the way Hornel used photography to create his art. When you visit E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas (or any other exhibition, for that matter) we hope this brief glimpse behind the scenes adds another dimension to your experience.

Book your free slot to visit E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas.

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