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.