New Scottish National Portrait Gallery

November 30 2011

Video: SNPG

Kenneth Clark once said:

The faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of an epoch.

I wonder, can you say the same for ‘a nation’? It was a question I thought of going round the newly renovated Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Monday. Did the ranks of Scottish faces, from 1500 to the present day, tell me anything about the meaning of the Scots? Not really.

Still, the new portrait gallery is one of the most impressive galleries I’ve ever been to. The video above gives you a good glimpse of what treats await the first visitors tomorrow. There are of course all the benefits of a new gallery you could wish for, zippy cafes, clever architecture, new lighting, clear labels, display cases in which you can actually see and get close to the contents, and a well-stocked shop.

But the gallery is impressive not just because of the £17m they’ve just spent rebuilding the place, and the 60% increase in works on display. It works well because the staff have used the recent closure to think cohesively about their collection, and how best to use it to tell the story of Scotland’s history. Each of the galleries now has a clearly defined narrative, so that, for example, the story of the Jacobites is well told in a single space, with all the relevant sitters you could wish for. Perhaps most importantly, they have managed to do this without resorting to an over-cluttered hang. Where the Portrait Gallery’s own collection has a gap, the curators have gone out and secured loans.

What I liked most was the inventiveness of the presentation. For example, there is a death mask of Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned animal (who was born at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh). The traditional approach might have been to hang a portrait of Dolly’s scientific creators. But having a cast of Dolly’s own head tells that part of the story of Scotland’s scientific history far more effectively. And in a room in which you can look out over the Firth of Forth, there is a display of Scotland’s role in the Naval battles of the Great War, supplemented with an important series of loans from the Imperial War Museum of naval scenes by John Lavery, including dreadnoughts in the Firth of Forth. This creative approach to telling Sotland’s story means, I suspect, that most visitors will find the new gallery a much more refreshing and enjoyable place than a traditional portrait gallery.

Highlights include: the cleaned murals in the entrance hall by William Hole; a room devoted to George Jameson, Scotland’s first eminent (and alas not always very good) portraitist; one of the best portraits Allan Ramsay ever painted; a ditto by John Michael Wright; the definitive portrait of Walter Scott by Raeburn; a photograph of ‘Subo’ (yes, she’s in); an intimadating portrait miniature of Mary Queen of Scots' husband, James Bothwell; an unusually accomplished self-portrait by Jack Vettriano (proving my theory that artists are usually at their best when they paint themselves); one of the most original medical portraits you'll ever see (by Ken Currie); one of Van Dyck's finest portraits, the study for two of Charles I's daughters; and too many others to list here…

So, go and see the new gallery soon. I went up to Edinburgh for the day, which you can do in quite a civilised way on the train (4.5 hrs), giving enough time for tours round the Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. Stay the night and you can fit in Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. 

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