Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

Three-year rejuvenation makes collection more accessible

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has undergone a three-year rejuvenation. Allan Radcliffe gets a sneak preview of the pop stars and actors rubbing shoulders with kings and queens inside, while overleaf we look at six of the new galleries’ most important artworks

It’s a starry night in early November, and I’m about to get my first taster of the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The imposing sandstone building that sprawls across an entire block of Edinburgh’s Queen Street has been closed since April 2009 for the highly publicised restoration by Glasgow’s Page\Park Architects. Judging by my own (completely unscientific) survey, people are excited about this local landmark coming to life again, though perhaps better acquainted with the quality of the home baking in the gallery’s former café than the iconic artworks.

This ambivalence towards the national collection of portraits, first established by newspaper magnate John Ritchie Findlay in 1889, is an attitude with which gallery director James Holloway is all too familiar. ‘In the past we haven’t been able to attract the tourist trade that the other galleries and places like the castle and Holyrood Palace get,’ he says. ‘The aim of the refurbishment is to make our collection more accessible. We’ve got some fantastic material but have only been able to show the tip of the iceberg.’

This newfound clarity of purpose becomes clear the moment I step into the foyer to be greeted by luminous plaster busts of Scotland’s literary masters, Burns, Scott and Stevenson. Above our heads William Hole’s painted frieze of historical figures, from Thomas Carlyle to Robert the Bruce and James Watt, has been painstakingly restored and its gleaming gold backdrop now casts an inviting glow over the entrance hall.

As Holloway points out, Page\Park have taken care to work with the existing fixtures and fittings, and where the building has been augmented the modern interventions sit sympathetically alongside the Gothic pillars and balustrades. This is felt most clearly in the bright, airy new café, where cups of coffee (not to mention that famous home baking) are served under likenesses of JM Barrie, Stevenson and Muriel Spark. ‘No other café in the world has such good paintings,’ laughs Holloway.

Introductions over, we sail through the heart of the Victorian building in a spacious glass elevator. ‘We’re encouraging visitors to make connections between past and present,’ says Holloway. It’s a theme that runs right through the new layout, from the ground floor level, where Hole’s roll call of the great and good sits next door to a new exhibition called Hot Scots (which Holloway admits he was tempted to subtitle ‘the people I’ve never heard of’). In this space, cultural icons such as Sean Connery and Billy Connolly rub shoulders with contemporary stars Paolo Nutini, Karen Gillan and Susan Boyle. It could be considered tacky, but the gallery has scored a hit previously with modern celebrity portraiture, attracting a large audience to the 2008 Vanity Fair exhibition. Holloway also points to the commissioning of Graham Fagen’s film work ‘The Missing’ in conjunction with the National Theatre of Scotland as an example of ways in which the portrait gallery is broadening its thematic scope. ‘We’re trying to address topics of popular interest,’ he says.

Other community-spirited innovations include the brand new education space that sits on a mezzanine level on the ground floor, and rooms devoted to Scotland’s obsession with sport and literature. There is also the first dedicated photography space in a public gallery in Scotland. While each gallery contains an abundance of works, the use of light colour schemes and polished floors and display cases (and in one room the removal of a lowered ceiling) creates a sense of space that will encourage unhurried reflection.

A substantial number of historical treasures are also on display. The extensive Print Room collection of prints, drawings and watercolours has been moved to a more accessible location in the middle of the building, and there’s a tangible sense now that Holloway and his team are playing their strongest hand, placing the most iconic works at the forefront of every display. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots now welcomes visitors to the first floor Reformation to Revolution exhibition while Alexander Nasmyth’s famous likeness of Robert Burns occupies a ‘Mona Lisa’-like corner of contemplation in the Age of Improvement gallery. It’s the familiarity of these works, from history textbooks, book covers and, frankly, shortbread tins, that makes them so compelling, and it is an enjoyable experience to see them up close.

Whether such efforts lead to a spike in visitor numbers is yet to be seen but the gallery now follows a clear narrative that provides a user-friendly insight into Scotland’s history and culture, from the Reformation to Devolution and beyond.

Bringing the story right up to date is a rotating exhibition called Migration Stories, which opens with photographs of prominent Pakistanis in Scotland and their families by Verena Jaekel. Locating this show in a north-facing corner of the gallery with a clear view of Leith and her colonially influenced street names – Antigua Street, Baltic Street, India Street – provides a fitting end to our tour and a reminder that, wherever Scotland finds herself in the future, the past is never far away.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery reopens on Thu 1 Dec.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

Close, No. 118 High Street (1871) by Thomas Annan (right)

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

In 1868 the Fife-born photographer, Thomas Annan, began his series of 31 photographs of the closes and wynds of old Glasgow. This area was one of the worst urban slums in Britain and had recently been scheduled for demolition. Annan was charged with recording its passing. His closes offer a mysterious encounter. Although taken at a time of public concern about the overcrowding of the urban working class, his interest lies more in making images which position the urban environment within the artistic tradition of the picturesque. (James Holloway, Director of Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

Campbell of Glenorchy Family Tree (1635) by George Jamesone (left)

This is an unusual picture, comprising multiple portraits, commissioned by a patron with an early interest in family genealogy. The stylised cherry tree with colourful roundels hanging from its branches has the recumbent figure of Lord Campbell at the bottom, painted to look like medieval representations of the Tree of Jesse in the biblical book of Isaiah (a family tree, which shows Christ’s ancestors). This is the first ever exhibition on the Aberdeen artist George Jamesone – the first great native-born Scottish portrait painter. (David Taylor, Senior Curator)

(Lady) Naomi Mitchison (1938) by Wyndham Lewis (left)

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Patrons of the National Galleries of Scotland 2003
Naomi Mitchsion said that Lewis’ portrait was how she would like to be remembered as he ‘got at something below the surface’. Mitchison was a writer, socialist and feminist born in Edinburgh in 1897. She was working on her novel The Blood of the Martyrs in 1938 while sitting for this portrait, set in ancient Rome at the time of the persecution of the early Christians, the book was an allegory with contemporary references to Nazi Germany and the threat of war. Mitchison said that the pensive frown was a reflection of the ‘brooding anxiety’ of the times. (James Holloway)

Karen Gillan (2010) By Suki Dhanda (right)

Famous Scottish faces from the world of TV, Film and Music will be found in Contemporary Scotland, a new gallery space on the ground floor. This space includes Hot Scots, which features photography including Suki Dhanda’s portrait of Karen Gillan. Gillian, from Inverness, has gained international recognition for her role as Amy Pond in Dr Who. It’s very exciting that this portrait of such an up and coming star of stage and screen is part of our contemporary gallery space, it will be seen by the public – just on their left – immediately as they enter the portrait gallery. (Duncan Forbes)

Untitled (2010) from The Brave Ones by Zwelethu Mthethwa

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

This image is hanging in the opening Scottish National Portrait Gallery show, Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography and the Modern World. It is the first photograph to come into the collection by a post-Apartheid South African photographer. The image shows two boys from the Shembe Nazareth Baptist community in South Africa, a denomination that blends Christian and Zulu traditions. The boys have appropriated Scottish military costume from the late 19th century for their own, highly creative, uses. The kilt here becomes a powerful symbol of post-colonial identity and illustrates the complex global legacy of Scottish culture in the 21st century. (Duncan Forbes, Senior Curator of Photography)

Three Oncologists (2002) by Ken Currie

Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh reopens

The artist Ken Currie has captured the horror and anxiety associated with cancer in this powerful and alarming triple portrait of three oncologists. As pioneering cancer specialists, they are depicted as agents of high intelligence and skill – ready, able and prepared to fight and destroy the dreaded disease. When this portrait was painted, Professor Robert Steele (left), Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri (centre) and Professor Sir David Lane (right) were members of the Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School in Dundee. (James Holloway)

Migration Stories: Pakistan

An exhibition exploring Scotland's links with Pakistan using three different displays: an exhibition of photos of prominent Scots with Pakistani heritage; a film by Pakistani-born film-maker Sana Bilgrami; and a look at the life of a Scottish teacher in Lahore.

Reformation to Revolution

A major exhibition covering the transformation of Scotland from an independent nation ruled by Catholic monarchs in the beginning of the 16th century, to a part of the Union with Protestant England at the end of the 17th. Among the portraits included are Adrian Vanson's brilliant depiction of the then James VI of Scotland…

Hot Scots

Display of photographic portraits of some of Scotland's top creative people.

Facing the Nation: Reformation to Revolution

Senior Curator David Taylor discusses the Reformation to Revolution exhibition.

The Missing: a National Collaboration

Journalist Ruth Wishart chairs a discussion with artist Graham Fagen, who recently created a film work in response to Andrew O'Hagan's book The Missing; James Holloway, director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery; and John Tiffany, who directed the recent NTS stage adaptation of the book.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD

One of the most magnificent buildings in the entire city, 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…