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Great Scots

by Diana O'Neil, 6 March 2017

Revd Dr Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, c.1795 by Sir Henry Raeburn
Revd Dr Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, c.1795 by Sir Henry Raeburn

After nearly 130 years of collecting and exhibiting portraits of Scots, it’s fair to assume the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh has mastered the art. Holding over 30,000 works, with approximately 850 on show at any one time, the Gallery is a fine example of a collecting institution functioning as a national hub of culture, a centre for the country’s identity, and a place to capture the people’s spirit. As a simple visitor, I was charmed by the solid bulk of the building, by the statement it makes in its location, and by its palpable commitment to representing the Scottish people. As a professional working in the same field when visiting, I was also taken by the Gallery’s boldness and robust sense of itself.

When I contacted Christopher Baker, Director of the Gallery since 2012, he was most helpful in explaining the institution’s triumphant realisation. He explained its portraits provide a narrative of national history, but also put up a mirror to the contemporary diversity and richness of Scottish society.

International visitors flock to the Portrait Gallery. Baker believes a number of elements contribute to its drawing power: ‘Some certainly feel it will help them navigate and learn about Scotland’s complex and fascinating history … the photography program we host … [and] to admire a great building – the first purpose-built gallery of this type – which takes the form of a spectacular gothic palace.’

The Portrait Gallery’s origin story speaks to the vigour and vitality that saw Edinburgh develop into a major cultural capital of Europe in the twentieth century. The honour of designing an extraordinary national building was awarded to Sir Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921), an architect well-known for some of Scotland’s major landmarks, and knighted for his contribution to the regal Balmoral Castle. In 1889, Anderson was ready to open the Gallery’s huge, heavy timber doors to the public. Passing under gargoyle-like sculptures and gazing at the building’s dour, dark red brick walls, visitors may well have felt a sense of awe bordering on foreboding.

Perhaps the second-biggest moment in the Gallery’s history came in December 2011, when the building finally reopened after an extensive, eighteen month, £18 million renovation. Since then, the Gallery has sung with a modern clarity. After more than 120 years of benign neglect tempered by the odd bit of maintenance, the upgrade saw the restoration of architecturally purposeful delineation and natural light. In terms of museum practice, the Gallery can now employ present-day exhibition techniques and provide premium services for the visiting public, including a modern cafe, a functional entrance area, and efficient ‘wayfinding’. Today, the Gallery thrums with a rejuvenated, Edinburgh-esque, Neo-Gothic mojo.

Shortly after the building re-opened, BBC Special Correspondent, Scotsman Allan Little, captured the project’s achievement: ‘The striking thing about this gallery now is how connected it is to the living, breathing, developing life of this country. It is really connected. It is not a matter for history anymore; it is a matter of who we are now, and who we are going to become in the foreseeable and distant future.’
The stunning interiors, some of them revealed through the renovation, include William Hole’s (1846 –1917) wondrously ornate frieze, found in the Ambulatory (a delightfully old-fashioned noun!), its foyer/main hall. The processional frieze has a gold, gesso background and curlicues surrounding the parade of sombre, historic Scottish figures; they are standing formally, in the vein of a wedding party or meeting of world leaders, waiting to be photographed, captured for all time. Hole was born in England but his admiration of his adopted home of Scotland clearly dominates his major works. A member of the Royal Scottish Academy, Hole is also known for his book illustrations, particularly of various biblical themes.

A number of foundational figures loom large in the institution’s history. John Ritchie Findlay (1824-1898) can be described as the father of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, having provided funds for its building and endowment. A newspaper baron at the helm of The Scotsman, he gave a great deal of his wealth to the city of Edinburgh, bequeathing funds to improve medical facilities and providing assistance to impoverished children, historical research and social housing. From 1882, he began supporting the National Portrait Gallery, and his donation of more than £80,000 equates roughly to £120 million today ($200 million Australian dollars).

John Miller Gray (1850-1894) became the Gallery’s first curator in 1884. In a tragic story all too typical of Victorian times, he only survived ten years in the job he loved so much, dying of a brain haemorrhage at forty-four years of age. Imagine how marvellous his work must have been: it was his job to catalogue the founding collection in preparation for its inaugural hang at the opening of the brand new building. Fittingly, Patrick William Adam’s portrait of Miller Gray in the Collection shows the young curator absorbed in a book, in the midst of a mass of strikingly arranged portraits.

David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), also known as Lord Cardross, is acknowledged as a founder of the Collection. History has not treated him well, either in volume —there are scant primary sources that include him at all – or in character assessment. He was described in his lifetime and shortly thereafter as ‘eccentric’, and not in the endearing way! Regardless of the opprobrium attached to the Earl, the Portrait Gallery chooses to appreciate him: ‘His collection of portraits of famous Scots, assembled in the late eighteenth century, formed the foundation of the national portrait collection in its first conception.’ Although the Earl was lambasted by Sir Walter Scott for his ‘immense vanity’, Charles Turner’s portrait seems intent on presenting the nobleman in a different light. With his bright eyes and half smile, Turner’s subject appears more interested in peering curiously at his portraitist than projecting a handsome visage.

The current criteria for adding to the Collection stipulates that the artworks must be ‘portraits of Scots, though not necessarily made by Scots’. There is the stated intention that the Collection be kept up-to-date, and there is a commissioning program for the creation of portraits of contemporary Scots.

The Gallery is determined to never be inward-looking, vain, or elitist. Baker maintains, ‘we have a well-deserved reputation for being welcoming and inclusive. I think we are measured not just by visitor numbers, but also by the breadth of audiences we engage with and the number of times they return. Key to this is to ensure we do not stand still, but instead provide a fresh, stimulating and sometimes challenging program of exhibitions and events.’

The Gallery’s desire to remain relevant to a broader public was embodied in ‘Hot Scots’, an exhibition that ran from December 2011 to June 2012. Hot Scots beautifully showcased current, popular and often world-famous Scottish faces, including Sir Sean Connery, James McAvoy, David Tennant, and Doctor Who sidekick Karen Gillan.

The Gallery’s current display, a long-term exhibition called The Modern Portrait (open until October 2019) gathers the Collection’s finest twentieth and twenty-first century portraits in various media. Among the most striking are Christian Hook’s painting of Alan Cumming (2014) and Ken Currie’s ghostly Three Oncologists (2002). Hook has created an intriguing, kinetic rendering of Cumming, capturing the engaging energy for which the actor is famous. Baker says the painting is ‘immensely popular’.

Three Oncologists is, similarly, a treat. Currie, a Glaswegian, captured three medicos in a seemingly trepidatious moment – one with blood on his hands, one with a medical implement, and one carrying papers. In a video interview with Currie on the Gallery website, he reveals the lengths to which he felt he had to go in order to truly know these three ‘important individuals’ after having been commissioned to paint them. The artist went so far as to observe one of the surgeons operating. He ended up making plaster masks – in the vein of death masks – of the three, and the resultant casts contributed to the artist’s vision of the painting’s final form. The masks also remain in the Collection.

Of course, every portrait gallery must be concerned with its portraits’ cultural value. Baker refers to the ‘iconic portraits in the collection of fascinating figures such as Mary Queen of Scots or Robert Louis Stevenson, which have great resonance for many because of their historical associations and romance’. But, says Baker, the work that has the broadest appeal is the portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth. ‘It is a relatively modest image, but a painting of great charm and affection, and of course a depiction of our brilliant national poet, whose work continues to provide inspiration around the world today. It is a painting that has been endlessly reproduced, and many people quite rightly make a pilgrimage to see and admire the original.’ Nasmyth depicts Burns standing in front of a Scottish moor, firmly entrenched in the landscape he helped enshrine in literature. Looking at his glowing cheeks and twinkling eyes, the viewer can understand why the poet was almost as well known for his romantic conquests as his romantic poetry.

In 2014, The Guardian published an article celebrating the ‘Top Ten Masterpieces of Scotland’. Not surprisingly, they chose one of Sir Henry Raeburn’s works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Collection. However, rather than selecting Raeburn’s most well-known work, ‘The Skating Minister’ (1795), The Guardian selected a portrait of a tartan-clad clan chief, Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry. His facial expression and stance suggests he is, perhaps, suffering from an excess of nineteenth century nobleman’s hubris, but his gorgeous apparel more than makes up for any shortcomings. His socks alone are endearing.

Raeburn (1756 –1823) may well contend for the crown of most prolific Scottish portraitist, with the Gallery holding a ‘mere’ thirty-seven of his works. It is said that he painted over one thousand portraits in his fifty years as an artist. His work is much loved by the Scottish public, with the postcard of Reverend Robert Walker (1755 – 1808) skating on Duddingston Loch the most popular of all postcards sold in the Gallery’s shop. (It should be quietly noted that the attribution of Raeburn to this painting has been disputed).

The Scots have arranged their national cultural institutions under the aegis of the Scottish National Galleries, made up of the Scottish National Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, and National Portrait Gallery. These institutions work together, share some functionality, and share a common intent: to serve the Scottish people in their individual and collective exploration of identity. These Scottish galleries are, perhaps, not under quite so much pressure as those of some other nations, with the Scottish government recognising their true value to Edinburgh and to all of Scotland.

So… what does the future hold?

Baker declares, ‘We have every reason to be very optimistic about the Gallery’s future… [It] has an intriguing function at a time when issues around identity are being so widely debated and challenged, individually, within families, communities and countries, as well as across the globe. With regard to finances, yes of course we are operating in a very challenging environment, but as long as an institution like this continues to serve its diverse audiences effectively, and creatively seek additional sources of income then there is no reason why it should not flourish.’ Hear, hear.

We acknowledge the gracious assistance of the Scottish National Galleries in providing images for this article.

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