The Scottish National Portrait Gallery re-opens
Edinburgh gallery transformed after major refurbishment
On Thursday 1 December, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery finally reopened its doors to the public after a major refurbishment spanning two and a half years. It has been well worth the wait; the once gloomy and glum interior has been transformed into a bright, spacious and fluid building, fit for a new generation. And best of all, entry into the new Gallery is free.
The public and exhibition space within the Gallery has increased by more than 60% since its refurbishment; as well as the traditional (and much missed) artworks from the likes of Ramsay, Nasmyth and Raeburn being on prominent display, the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery now houses some of the National Galleries of Scotland’s unparalleled holdings of Scottish and international photography. The photographs, which vary from some of the earliest examples of 19th century photography to cutting-edge contemporary commissions, now have their own dedicated gallery space (currently exploring the theme of photography and romanticism). They are also integrated within various exhibitions throughout the Gallery, including Hot Scots, which takes a glimpse at those Scots making their mark of the world today; and Migration Stories: Pakistan, displaying Verena Jaekel’s beautiful collection of Scottish-Pakistani family portraits.
The Great Divide
The Great Divide was commissioned as an installation and a photograph by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, for an exhibition entitled The Vigorous Imagination. It was the first time I had money to spend on a photographic set, to buy new wallpaper, a new carpet, a second hand fridge. The image was a product of the Thatcher era, and talk of Britain as divided … the haves and have nots, the Great North/South Divide. But I could see this divide in my own city. The problem was how to separate the two parts. One day, when I was up a ladder papering, I tore a bit of the paper and it looked like the islands of the north of Scotland. So the divide became the east coast of Great Britain and if you look carefully it travels down the divided wallpaper past Dundee, Edinburgh, then down through the carpet to London represented by a bottle of HP sauce. The ‘Tretchikoff style’ portrait above the fireplace was in my house in Stirling and I had to plead with my Dad to use it, he wouldn’t let it out of the house. The burnt plank of wood propped up on a chair in the fire, was a story my friend told me when she was working for the DHSS. It’s great to have this work shown at the opening of the new refurbished Portrait Gallery: the building looks wonderful and the exhibition space dedicated to photography is a welcome addition in the city. I hope this will be the first of many great photographic shows at the Portrait Gallery.
Betty at Port Glasgow Town Hall Christmas Party
'Betty' is one of a series of images I took at the Port Glasgow Town Hall in 2004. They used to hold raucous Christmas parties there over eight consecutive nights during the festive season. It became the front cover of a coffee table book of social documentary images of the town, which I had delivered exclusively to each of the eight thousand houses in the Port by the local boys football team. The book is not available anywhere else, commercially, by mail order, or otherwise (though it now occasionally appears on eBay). I wanted to make a symbolic gift to Portonians, who at once became both the protagonists in, and recipients of, an artists' experiment. It is interesting to see the image seven years later re-contextualised as a large print in the Portrait Gallery. Its presence here, both as part of the National Galleries of Scotland collection, and now on display in the new Photography Gallery, plays a vital role in ensuring that the issues which the Port Glasgow Book Project raised about authorship, audience, and documentary practice in contemporary art continue to be discussed. Its inclusion in the show Romantic Camera, sensitively curated by Duncan Forbes, has given me a new way of thinking about the work. The exhibition not only helps to contextualise the work within the historical canon of photographic practice in Scotland, but it also generates new references and meanings for the image. For some reason I have received mountains of emails from Parisians about this image, and the question they ask most frequently is: 'What song is she dancing to?'
I am delighted that this mysterious portrait of a woman, who has a haunting presence, but is completely unknown, is included in the new Portrait Gallery's photography exhibition Romantic Camera. The image appears 'romantic' at first sight, but masks more complex realities, relating to gender, surveillance and control. All we know of this woman is that the nineteenth century plaster cast of her features was labelled 'cautious type', a quality that the phrenologists associated with femininity. This image is one of my favourites from the series, and continues to fascinate me. Her image and presence sprang to life while I worked with it, and we feel that she might open her eyes at any moment. The image comes from the photographic series, The Somnambulists, which aimed to release the subjects of the casts from the categories and hierarchies of the phrenological head collection, using photography, lighting and digital imaging, to give a suggestion of living presence. In relation to the theme of romanticism and photography, we think of photography and its Victorian origins, but in many senses photography was 'dreamed up' within the era of Romanticism. The phrenological casts, life masks and death masks, created as 'evidence' to back up the pseudo- science of phrenology in the early nineteenth century, were a kind of early precursor to photography.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
1 Queen Street,
Modelled on the Doges Palace in Venice, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has an impressive gothic red sandstone façade designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson. As well as classical subjects such as Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the…