A view of the interior of the gallery. The Missing, a video work by Graham Fagan about missing persons, is showing onscreen. Photography: John McKenzie

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Simon Stephens, Issue 112/02, p42-45, 01.02.2012
Scotland's portrait gallery has emerged after a total makeover, inside and out. Simon Stephens gauges its success
For many years, the true face of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery had been hidden under a veil of dirt and ill-thought-out architectural interventions.

All that changed in December 2011 following a £17.6m makeover that has transformed the building and its displays.

There are only a handful of portrait galleries around the world. They are slightly odd institutions, often created in the 19th-century to satisfy a Victorian desire to honour the great and the good.

But public attitudes to the rich and famous are very different today and, in an era of tabloid exposes of politicians and celebrities, the traditional idea of a portrait gallery feels a bit too reverential. So portrait galleries have had to reinvent themselves for modern audiences.

London’s National Portrait Gallery has shown this can be done. Its steady rise in visitor numbers in recent years can’t just be the result of the introduction of free entry in 2001.

Over the past decade, visits have nearly doubled to nearly 1.9 million a year. The London gallery is now as much about social history as portraiture.

The redevelopment in Edinburgh has allowed the National Galleries of Scotland to create light and airy spaces at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery but it has also led to a total rethink of its approach to displaying portraiture.

The overall aim has been to place the artworks more firmly in the context of Scottish history and culture.

Roll call

The gallery starts in a small but spectacular way in the Great Hall. Despite its name, it’s not one of those cavernous entrance halls often seen in modern museum developments. But its starlit ceiling and colourful mural featuring key figures from Scottish history provide a strong introduction to the museum.

The Great Hall also confronts visitors with a series of marble statues of some of venerable Scots, such as poet Robert Burns, writer Robert Louis Stevenson and poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott.

The familiar roll call of important historical figures highlights one of the challenges that today’s portrait galleries face: the great and good are all very well, but what if people are interested in the not-so-great and the not-so-good?

Expanding portraiture to tell a people’s history of Scotland is not easy. In the same way that history is said to be written by the victors, historic portraits are mostly commissioned by the rich and the subjects are either themselves or other rich people.

The curators at the portrait gallery have tackled this problem in various ways. One approach has been to expand what can be shown in the gallery to include landscapes.

The idea is that the relationship of the Scots to their rural and urban environments is central to the story of Scotland itself. Featuring landscapes helps the gallery to provide a wider portrait of the nation.

So there is a gallery showing 17th-century engravings by military surveyor John Slezer, who produced a range of images of the places he visited while assessing the nation’s defences for the Scottish army.

And visitors can see paintings such as James Barret’s A View of Stornoway, featuring a fishing and farming community in the Western Isles at the end of the 18th century.

South African kilts

The portrait gallery also features the War at Sea exhibition, which was developed with the Imperial War Museum. This focuses on John Lavery’s work as an official war artist to record the first world war naval conflict in the North Sea.

His paintings of battleships, airfields and munitions dumps are shown alongside photographs of the women who worked in factories during the war.

The gallery has also expanded the story of portraiture by commissioning new works in an attempt to represent a wider view of Scottishness. These include Migration Stories, a series designed to highlight Scotland’s cultural diversity.

The first exhibition features German-born photographer Verena Jaekel’s portraits of prominent Scots of Pakistani heritage. They are not particularly exciting images but it’s an interesting idea that will hopefully develop over time.

The National Galleries of Scotland has also been acquiring new works for the displays. The portrait gallery has a dedicated photography space, which includes a recently acquired work by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa.

The 2010 image shows two boys from South Africa’s Shembe Nazareth Baptist community who are wearing costumes inspired by kilts, a legacy of the Scottish regiments that occupied the area in the late-19th century.

Photography is a strong area for the gallery, which holds the national collection of 38,000 historic and modern photographs. Again returning to landscapes, the gallery explores the relationship between romanticism and photography in Scotland.

The displays are thematic and follow a loose chronology, an approach that may not appeal to all visitors. I thought it worked well, and liked the more tightly focused galleries such as Pioneers of Science, which looks at Scotland’s reputation for scientific innovation through portraits of figures as diverse as engineer John Logie Baird through to Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal.

I also enjoyed the gallery with Thomas Annan’s 19th-century photographs of Glasgow slums but, again, this broadening of the definition of portraiture will challenge some visitors.

Hot Scots

The new gallery has 60% more public space following the revamp and about 900 works on display. These include some of Scotland’s best-loved portraits, such as Alexander Nasmyth’s 1787 portrait of Burns and Henry Raeburn’s depiction of Scott. There are also lots of less familiar artworks to discover.

The thematic galleries are designed to make sense on their own, which means visitors don’t have to follow a set route or see the whole gallery in one go.

Themes cover areas such as the Jacobites, sport and science, while others focus on specific artists, such as George Jamesone, described as Scotland’s first portrait painter.

There is no temporary exhibition space: instead, displays will be frequently changed. As well as being a lot to see, there is a lot to read.

Captions are on the long side, with the curators obviously keen to pack in as much biographical information and context as they can. This worked well, although more information about the art itself would have been useful in some cases.

A few elements are less successful, such as the Hot Scots display on the ground floor, which features a rather unfocused line-up of portraits of celebrities, mostly actors such as David Tennant, Sean Connery and James McAvoy.

But even this has a logic, as it is a way of drawing in visitors who may feel comforted by the sight of familiar faces before they head upstairs to check out the historical portraits.

The gallery has worked hard to make the spaces feel unstuffy and accessible. One of the trails is the Fur Coat an’ Nae Knickers tour, which takes visitors to see figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly.

As the trail says: “Ye winnae want tae miss a gem hidden in this midden.”

Project data

  • Cost £17.6m
  • Main funders Scottish Government £7.1m; Heritage Lottery Fund £4.8m; Trusts £4.1m; individuals and corporate £1.6m
  • Architect Page/Park Architects
  • Exhibition design consultant Studioarc
  • Main contractor BAM