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Published: 26 January 2019

By Andy Ross

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Capturing the moment

There is a painting in Dundee's McManus Museum and Art Gallery which is intriguing on many levels.

The city of Dundee's gallery/ museum, The McManus, is a fascinating mix of history, art, costume, the natural world. It is a great place to spend a few hours if you are in this part of the world and so, on the recent roadtrip, I visited. 

In one of the rooms, beside an oil of Serbian Women spinning and knitting painted by Francis Newbery, (pictured on the left) there is another oil of piping soldiers dressed in kilts. The picture was made in 1918 by William Bruce Ellis Ranken and it is entitled Pipe Practice. It is an interesting work from many points of view - the tartans the pipers wear, the pipes themselves, the drill jacket all show us that these men were from the Scots Guard regiment, for example, and the painter himself is an interesting figure in Scottish painting. However it is the composition of the painting which captured my attention. 

The men in the picture are shown from the front, back and side views, playing, preparing to play and at rest. Rather than a painting the composition reads rather like an advertisement, like those from the 1970's of men's knitwear, or a fashion designer's drawings. 

I wonder what the story is behind this picture; it is intriguing. William was very likely homosexual, given his circle of friends, the art he produced and his subject matter but this picture, while it is homoerotic, is much more than that. It is almost as though William was presenting these men as models, not just of costume but of war, fear, pride, youth... Isn't it amazing the stories that one picture can tell?