SUSAN Mansfield introduces the lasting legacy of two great Scottish patrons of the arts, W Gordon Smith and his wife Jay, whose collection is currently on show online at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery

IN his obituary of W Gordon Smith in The Scotsman in 1996, writer and historian Trevor Royle spoke of “the great Scottish tradition of polymaths who not only delighted in their country’s cultural life but also made a substantial contribution to it”.

Smith is remembered as a documentary maker, art critic and writer on culture, a fount of knowledge about the arts and a formidable raconteur. However, the contributions he made to Scottish culture and to Scotland’s sense of itself at a key time in its history deserve greater recognition.

“An Exhibition Celebrating the Lives of W Gordon Smith and Mrs Jay Gordonsmith” is currently online at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery, exploring the couple’s role as art collectors and patrons of the arts. Here, their remarkable art collection is shown in public for the first time.

While it contains important works by major artists such as David McClure, John McLean and Robin Philipson, this is not a collection shaped with investment in mind. It’s a glorious gallimaufrey of oil paintings, prints, watercolours, ceramics and sculptures, mainly by Scottish artists, in every conceivable style. The artist Sandy Moffat, a friend of the couple, said Gordon and Jay never intended to create a coherent collection. “It was always ‘let’s help the artists, let’s put some money in young artists’ pockets so they can buy more paint and brushes’,” he says. “It was very altruistic. Almost every square inch of their home had some work of art on it. It started in a couple of rooms and, as the collection grew, it was in the hallway, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, everywhere.”

It reflects the couple’s support of artists spanning nearly 50 years, begun by Gordon in the 1960s and continued by Jay until her death in 2019. The work spans generations, from the Scottish Colourists to painters such as Margot Sandeman, James Morrison and Jack Knox; from a painted banjo purchased from a young John Byrne, to more recent works by Adrian Wiszniewski, Avril Paton and Craig Mulholland. And there is plenty of quirkiness, from the paintings of Barry McGlashan and Dorothy Stirling to a bronze sculpture by Edith Simon of Jay’s and Gordon’s feet with their three dachshunds, Kendal, Barnum and Zebo.

If anything, Jay’s commitment to supporting the arts increased after Gordon’s death in 1996. Sandy Moffat said: “Jay was very, very keen to add to the collection. When I look at the works, I can see her tastes emerging. Tom Wilson and I would go round the artist society shows and report back to her, and the very next day she would nip up and buy something. In her final years, Jay was one of the most generous patrons of the visual arts in Scotland. Goodness knows the total sum of money she invested.”

Gordon and Jay, who had worked together at the BBC for more than a decade, married in 1991. He had begun his career as a journalist on the Dalkeith Advertiser and Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, before moving to the BBC as a producer, first in radio, then television. Through his production unit based in Edinburgh, he pioneered the making of arts documentaries in Scotland, making more than 100 half-hour programmes in the 1960s and 1970s for series such as Scope and Spectrum.

His subjects included writer William McIlvanney, composer Ronald Stevenson, artist David Harding (then town artist in Glenrothes), actor Fulton Mackay, poet Liz Lochhead, fashion designer Bernat Klein and folk musicians The Corries. He had little interest in fame, preferring to capture subjects in the relatively early stages of their careers.

Sandy Moffat said: “I never knew how Gordon got in touch with me. It was back in 1972, I was completely unknown, I hadn’t done anything, I just got this letter saying he was coming to make a film. If you spent an hour or two with him, you felt inspired, he knew so much, but he was interested in letting the artist speak.”

Gordon travelled to London to make a programme about John Bellany, and to Rome to interview Muriel Spark. He was interested in Scots, wherever they lived, and in creating a rich and diverse picture of Scotland’s cultural contribution to the world. At a time when the country was refining itself, Sandy Moffat believes the impact of this can’t be underestimated.

He said: “Television was the most modern of mediums in the 1960s and 1970s, and presenting local artists in this way was so important. It was reconstructing a new idea about Scottish art and Scottish culture.

“It was a time when Scotland was regrouping, we had moved on 20-odd years from the end of the war, we were beginning to think about who we were. It coincided with new galleries popping up, printmakers’ workshops, the Traverse Theatre, Scottish Opera.

It was all part of a kind of cultural renaissance, all coming from the grassroots.”

In 1980, when Smith’s unit at the BBC in Edinburgh was disbanded and he was made redundant, he returned to writing, producing biographies of William Gillies, Robin Philipson and David Donaldson.

HE also continued his work as a playwright, having already produced highly successful works such as Vincent, about the artist Van Gogh, which he wrote for Tom Fleming, and Jock, his 1972 play about an angry Scottish soldier, performed for 10 years to great acclaim by Russell Hunter, and perhaps the Black Watch of its day. His writing about Scottish identity in his books and plays deserves further consideration.

He also became art critic for Scotland on Sunday. In a tribute in the newspaper after his death, John Bellany spoke of his “generosity of spirit”: “He had that wonderful knack of spotting the merit in an artist’s outpourings and never gloated over their weaknesses … His love of the visual arts and artists was boundless and his hallmark was encouragement.”

In 1996, Gordon was behind the launch of the Noble Grossart Painting Award, open to artists living and working in Scotland and Scottish artists all over the world, with a top prize of £10,000. Launching the award, he wrote about how the nation’s achievements in the visual arts over the preceding 25 years had “given a new dimension and fresh distinction to our cultural identity”.

Nearly 20 years later, Jay Gordonsmith funded the W Gordon Smith Award in his memory. The parameters were similar, a prize for painting, with a top award of £10,000. The judges received online submissions of over 400 works, and a longlist of 50 was exhibited at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh in January 2016. Robbie Bushe was named the inaugural winner.

The W Gordon Smith Award continues, being made annually in each of the four Edinburgh-based artist-run societies. Before her death in 2019, Jay endowed these awards for the next 10 years, and also left money to support the RSA Residencies for Scotland programme and for bursaries for students on foundation courses at Leith School of Art.

Proceeds from sales of works at the Open Eye Gallery show will go to support those projects. It seems fitting that works of art bought primarily to support the artists concerned are now part of a legacy which will support the next generation, ensuring – as the collectors wanted – that the wheels of creativity continue to be oiled.

An Exhibition Celebrating the Lives of W Gordon Smith and Mrs Jay Gordonsmith can be seen at