AS the drive curves through mature woodland, the house comes into view: a turreted Scots baronial fantasy in red sandstone. In taking the road to Hospitalfield, I am following in the footsteps of many of Scotland’s finest artists of the past 100 years.

For much of the last century, the Victorian house on the outskirts of Arbroath has been a unique place of education, debate and exchange for young artists in Scotland. Around 700 artists have passed through its doors. Alumni including Joan Eardley, John Byrne, Peter Howson and Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, to name a few, but the list reads like a veritable Who’s Who of Scottish art.

Published earlier this year, Students of Hospitalfield: Education and Inspiration in 20th Century Art, by Dr Peggy Beardmore, is the first book to tell the story of this remarkable place. She writes: “When the impacts that the Hospitalfield experience had on individual participants are considered beside one another, its significance as a force within the development of art in Scotland and beyond is revealed.” She describes it as “a germinator of creative endeavour for over 100 years”.

The name of the house dates back to the 14th century, when the land was the site of a “hospital” for pilgrims visiting Arbroath Abbey. Fascinated by its history, Walter Scott used it as the inspiration for the estate of Monksbarns in his 1816 novel The Antiquary. It was a commission to produce illustrations for a new edition of the novel that brought artist Patrick Allan to the house as a visitor in 1842.

Allan had been born in Arbroath into a family of small business owners and skilled workers. He was apprenticed as a decorative house painter in his uncle’s firm, but was single-minded about pursuing his passion for art, first in Edinburgh and later in Europe. During his visit to the then much smaller, simpler Hospitalfield House, he became acquainted with Elizabeth Fraser, the heiress to the estate. The couple were married the following year. When he came into his legal inheritance, he added the Fraser name to his own.

Allan-Fraser set about transforming the house in keeping with his passions as an artist and (now) a gentleman. His developments included the spacious Picture Gallery, hung with the work of his Edinburgh circle and displaying the sculptures, objects and furniture he had brought back from his travels in Europe. The best local craftsmen created the Arts & Crafts-influenced interior.

Allan-Fraser was a polymath. His interests included architecture, social reform, economics, religion and soil science. When a new source of clean water was required after a cholera epidemic in Arbroath, he helped locate it, helped fund the building of the water tower and advised on the architecture. But art was his passion, and when he died in 1890, he left his estate and capital to fund a school of art at Hospitalfield, aimed particularly at those who lacked the means to pay for an art education for themselves.

Sadly, the Allan-Fraser Art College was short lived. It struggled financially, and the First World War and the recession which followed brought further challenges. In 1927, the majority of the trustees petitioned the Court of Session to dissolve the college, sell the estate and transfer the remaining funds into a Royal Scottish Academy scheme for new graduates, but the plea was rejected. It was seen as too big a change to the terms of Allan-Fraser’s endowment.

A new model was needed. In 1935, the Patrick Allan-Fraser Trust Scheme was launched: the house would be run by an artist-warden, and a small number of “genuine and meritorious students of drawing and painting” would be selected from each of Scotland’s art schools for an intensive residential summer school. Two years later, the first students arrived, and the artist James Cowie was appointed the first artist-warden. He remained in the post until 1948 and painted his masterpiece, The Evening Star, during the war years in the studio at Hospitalfield.

Cowie and his successor Ian Fleming, Beardmore writes, “led by example [and] encouraged students to pursue practices that aligned with their own affinities”. Their influence on many students of the time is clear, and for those who preferred a different approach, there could be colourful disagreements. Joan Eardley (left), at Hospitalfield as a student in 1947, worked in a loose expressionist painting style very much opposed to Cowie’s classicism. “I think I will have to be very strong,” she wrote to her friend Margot Sandeman from Arbroath, “to stand against Mr Cowie”.

A new era began in 1954 when William Reid took over as warden, employing a different artist-in-residence every summer to work with students. Artists who had been at Hospitalfield as students now returned as teachers. Scottish art schools at the time were rigorous, skills-based institutions, each with a distinctive tenor. At Hospitalfield, students could discover approaches different to the ones they had been taught, and discuss new ideas in art. The debate about abstraction versus representation raged afresh over many summers.

Here, for perhaps the first time, students had space to begin to work out their own style. Will Maclean, who came as a student in 1965, described his time there as a “different kind of learning experience, which came from the freedom that you got there, [it] provided confidence and assurance”. Fellow student George Donald said: “I came as a student, but left with the commitment to be an artist, with all the ways of thinking, being and doing that brings.” Students also enjoyed the stimulation they got from one another; lifelong friendships were forged and some met their life partners.

The summer residencies changed lives. John Byrne (1961) was inspired to change art schools from Glasgow to Edinburgh (though he later switched back to complete his degree). Gwen Hardie (1982) described her time at Hospitalfield as one in which “all the obstacles and distractions to working had gone”. She added: “It brought a new intensity of focus to my practice and strengthened my resolve to make art central to my life.” Kate Whiteford (1972), building her own studio in London in the late 1990s, drew on the inspiration of the light in the studios at Hospitalfield.

While it continued to impact the lives of young artists, by the 1970s, Hospitalfield was struggling financially. In 1969, the Scottish Education Department had issued a series of ambitious recommendations advising the Trust to reach out to a larger number of young artists, renovate the house itself and secure viable income streams for the future. These questions were never adequately addressed, and the trustees had to sell some of the estate land to developers to avoid further deficits.

THE Patrick Allan-Fraser Trust was officially brought to a conclusion in 1994. The regular summer residencies ended and a long period of reassessment and restructuring began. The current director, Lucy Byatt, was appointed in 2012. “I don’t think I realised quite how fragile things were,” she says. “The board was working in one direction and trying to have weddings and events to generate income, the alumni were terribly anxious that the focus on the artists would be lost. The question was about running an institution that actually has no money, but has extraordinary historical resources and extraordinary physical resources for artists.”

Her aim has been to develop Hospitalfield as a 21st century cultural organisation with a public profile, a role in the local community and a range of income-generating activities, while still remaining true to Allan-Fraser’s original aims to support artists in developing their work. This, she says, is as important now as it was 100 years ago. “There are plenty of big lottery-funded galleries, but they have no element within them for practice and for process. Artists need environments in which to develop their practice, to fail and to make change and to be brave.”

After two decades of restructuring, Hospitalfield needed to put itself on the map in the current art world, and it took a significant step towards this when Byatt and her team were invited to curate Graham Fagen’s exhibition for Scotland at the 2013 Venice Biennale. “That gave Hospitalfield a very different sense of credibility,” she said. “The first and foremost thing has to be to be credible to artists, to be a place that artists want to come. Without that fundamental root, we are nothing.” While not primarily an exhibition venue, the house has gone on to exhibit contemporary work, such as the first UK showing of Nazhad and the Bell by Iraqi artist Hiwa K, last September.

Later this year, the estate will be begin an ambitious package of development with the £1.3 million restoration of the walled garden and fernery, and the construction of a cafe. Further phases including the renovation of the historic studios (now badly in need of repair) and the construction of a new accommodation block, before moving on to the restoration of the house itself (which still houses Allan-Fraser’s remarkable collection) and the building of a reception and study centre.

Meanwhile, the house is busy with a mixture of artist residency programmes, meetings, conferences and events and activities for the local community. More than a century after Allan-Fraser’s death, it is still a place of learning, dialogue and exchange. “Hospitalfield is redolent with potential,” Byatt says. “We are a young organisation in an old building. It’s a busy place, and it seems to me that’s the way it should be.”

Students of Hospitalfield: Education and Inspiration in 20th Century Scottish Art, by Peggy Beardmore, is published by Sansom & Company, price £25. For more information about Hospitalfield’s programme see