The Art Critic at the Grange

Our blog post today is written by Peter Wild, a member of the Historylinks Museum Committee.

Unusually for me I remembered our wedding anniversary last year without being prompted. To make a change from the usual home made card and a bunch of flowers from the garden we went for dinner at the Royal Golf Hotel. I can never go in without remembering its earlier life: the walls hung heavy with paintings and tapestries; antique-filled rooms, lit by chandeliers with rugs and comfy chairs beside roaring fires; and shelves full of books. Outside the gardens had deep well-filled herbaceous borders. The evidence is still there but much has changed since it became a hotel in the 1930’s.

Originally named The Grange, it was built by Robert Hamilton Bruce around 1895 to a design by James Robert Rhind. Bruce was born in 1846 in Edinburgh, the third son of Major Walter Hamilton Tyndall Bruce who lived at Hay Lodge, Peebles. Little is known of his early life but aged 31 he moved to Edinburgh. Robert Bruce had become a successful businessman and was a partner in a Glasgow firm of flour importers, Bruce and Wilson, as well as the London bakeries firm J & B Battersea. He married Fanny in 1880 but she died only a year later. It wasn’t until 1891 that he married Katherine Laurie with whom he had six children

Love of the arts was his great passion, particularly the Hague and Barbizon Schools, but he disliked fashionable Impressionism. He was a good client of many of the leading art dealers of the day. He made several contributions to The Scottish Arts Review and the Art Journal in the brusque, direct style for which he was renowned. However his major achievement in the public sphere was the leading role he played in organising French and Dutch painting loans for the Edinburgh International Exhibition in 1886. His own personal collection was now considerable and he lent to major exhibitions, including the Royal Scottish Academy around that time.

Bruce also became interested in journalism. In 1888, with R. Fitzroy Bell and Walter Blaikie, he co-founded The Scots Observer appointing his friend William Ernest Henley, the poet and art critic, as editor. It was first published in Edinburgh but in 1889 it moved to London and was renamed The National Observer.

By 1891 Hamilton Bruce was making plans to retire. With his great enthusiasm for golf, Dornoch was an obvious choice. His new purpose-built house would display his vast art collection which now included works by Corot, Rousseau, Rodin, Turner and Jacob and Matthijs Maris. In January 1892 he applied for permission to ‘erect a Residence, Stable Offices, and enclosing walls & railings … on the South by the Property of Rev. George Kennedy and the Links’. His daughter Catherine Anne recalled some years later ‘It was a large house standing on that wind swept field with a wicket gate leading to the links … inside it was rather like a museum’. ‘My father built another house over the way to prevent villas going up, and he called it Abden. He started to buy land and went to the council and managed to get the burn cleaned up’.


The interior of the Grange (now the Royal Golf Hotel) as the private house of Robert Hamilton Bruce, a successful Glasgow businessman, built ‘The Grange’ in Dornoch to house his art collection. The set shows the style of furniture and furnishings of the early 20th century.
Photo of the Grange stairwell c 1900 Courtesy Anne Hamilton Bruce

ImageThe Grange stairwell in 2013 Collection Peter Wild

With his schooling, family connections, business and personal interests, Bruce became part of an intimate and influential circle which included authors R.L. Stevenson and J.M. Barrie, publisher Walter Blaikie and art critics Robert Mowbray Henley and William Hole. His houses in both Edinburgh and Dornoch became the bases for regular group gatherings and visits to discuss art and literature. Catherine recalled ‘My Mother remembered Henley shaking hot ash off the end of his cigars into delicate Japanese bowls while writing The Song of the Sword in the smoking room’.

He was not in Dornoch long as he died in 1899, just 5 days before the birth of his daughter Mary Edith Laurie on the 29th April. A writer in The Times described Bruce as one of the ‘greatest Scottish art patrons’. He had been a private man, generous to his friends, successful in business and not seeking credit for some of his major achievements. A double blow for the family was the death of Mary only a year later on 25th August 1900. She, along with her father, are buried in the Golf Road cemetery in Dornoch. The collection was slowly dispersed to collections in the National Gallery, Falkland Palace, Gladstone’s Land, as well as an auction at Christie’s in 1903.

Letter from Anne Hamilton Bruce
‘Impressionism & Scotland’, National Galleries of Scotland Catalogue 2008, p. 128
Suzanne Veldink, “‘Be-Marised or Bemused!’ R T Hamilton Bruce and the International Exhibition of 1886′, Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History, Vol. 14

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