The most significant works of art in Edinburgh

  • Edinburgh Guide
  • 16 February 2011
Portraits of a nation

Scotland's National Galleries are home to works by some of the most important artists in history

Old Masters, world-class sculpture and cutting-edge installations jostle for attention in Edinburgh’s galleries and exhibition spaces

What’s your idea of true art? The perfect peachy bums of The Three Graces? Football mastermind Sir Alex Ferguson rendered in cut-up red postcards? A stern-faced ice-skating minister? Whatever tickles your artistic fancy, you can be sure to find it in the National Galleries of Scotland.

The National Galleries has 65,000 objects in its collection, including works by some of the most important artists in history, such as Titian, Rubens, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Botticelli, portraits of a roll call of notable Scots and an impressive collection of Scottish art. Ranging from the early Renaissance to the 21st century, the collection is housed in separate galleries across Edinburgh: the National Gallery on Princes Street, the Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, and the modern art galleries to the west. All contain artworks that dazzle, perplex and delight – and the best thing is, the permanent collections are free.

The National Gallery has art from the early 16th century to 1900, plus the national collection of Scottish art from 1600 to 1900. When you need a break from the tourist trail and the crowds of shoppers on Princes Street, this is the place to go – what could be more rewarding than a look at Antonio Canova’s timeless and universal Three Graces or the uniquely local Reverend Robert Walker (1755–1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch by Sir Henry Raeburn?

Old masters form the heart of the collection here, with masterpieces by Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt. There are also impressionist gems such as Monet’s Haystacks, and the most comprehensive collection of Scottish paintings in the world, a feast of the big hitters of Scottish art – Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart.

On Queen Street, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is undergoing a major refit, traces the country’s history from the 16th century to the present day through the portraits of those who shaped it. Images of prominent Scots, in the form of paintings, sculptures, miniatures, coins, medallions, drawings and watercolours, are captured by an international array of talent as diverse as Allan Ramsay and David Mach. The gallery also houses the national collection of photography, which includes pioneering images by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.

The two galleries on Belford Road, the Gallery of Modern Art and its neighbour, the Dean, are home to Scottish and international art from 1900 to the present day. Among the 5,000 items in the collection are works by Warhol and Lichtenstein, many dada and surrealist works,

a fantastic archive donated by the Edinburgh-born sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, early 20th-century French paintings by Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso, examples of Russian and expressionist art, Hockney and Moore and other major post-war British contributors, celebrated Scottish artists such as Mackintosh, the colourists and John Bellany, and younger Scots such as Christine Borland.

One of the newest highlights at the Dean Gallery is 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright’s Stairwell Project. Inspired by the honeysuckle design of the original, circular decoration on the ceiling of the stairwell, Wright’s rows and rows of delicate organic shapes recall the generations of orphans who climbed these same stairs in the days when this building used to be an orphanage.

Outside are sculptures by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Rachel Whiteread and Barbara Hepworth. The lawn to the front of the Gallery of Modern Art was re-landscaped in 2002 to a design by Charles Jencks, while Antony Gormley leads us down to the nearby Water of Leith where his sculptures demonstrate what happens when art escapes the confines of the gallery.


National Gallery Complex, The Mound 0131 624 6200, nationalgalleries.org
Dean Gallery, 73 Belford Road, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 75 Belford Road
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street (due to reopen in late 2011)

Admission to all galleries is free but a charge may be made for special exhibitions

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two

73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS

Opened in 1999 in a former orphanage, the Scottish National Galleries' second modern art gallery, formerly known as the Dean Gallery, stands across the road from its partner, just outside Edinburgh’s Dean Village. Since its opening it has housed the…

Scottish National Gallery

The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL

Stationed at the foot of the mound, this building was designed by William Henry Playfair in 1850 to be a 'temple erected to the Fine Arts'. Since its completion the National Gallery has been home to some of the world's finest Western art ranging from…

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD

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…

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