Bold visions | Scotland’s Art from 1800 to 1945, The National, Edinburgh - Museums Association

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Bold visions | Scotland’s Art from 1800 to 1945, The National, Edinburgh

An impressive 145 years of Scottish art are covered in this new suite of galleries
Art Redevelopment
David Johnston
Converted 1970s offices now house the galleries dedicated to Scottish art Gillian Hayes, Dapple Photography; Courtesy Hoskins Architects

In the heart of Edinburgh, where the Mound joins Princes Street, stand two 19th-century neoclassical buildings housing the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland. These have now been joined by the Scottish Galleries to form the triumvirate known as the National.

The new spaces, which opened at the end of September, feature Scottish art from 1800 to 1945 from the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections. 

Construction work threw up a number of engineering challenges. As a result, the project took longer than expected and the cost more than doubled to £38.6m.

The plan to expand and convert 1970s offices and a seldom visited gallery was first conceived in 2016. Work began in 2018 and the initial phase was completed in 2019 with a new entrance in East Princes Street Gardens, a new cafe, refurbished restaurant and shop, and improved landscaping and a terrace.

An open plan white columned gallery space with people in it and stairs to the right
The National's entrance area, now bigger and brighter than it was beforeGillian Hayes, Dapple Photography; Courtesy Hoskins Architects

The Scottish Galleries comprise nine accessible display spaces organised by theme rather than chronologically. The first room, A Point in Time – Art in the 1920s, starts with a painting by the border artist William Johnstone that gives the room its name.


A Point in Time, 1929/1937, is a gloomy abstract painting that grew out of the horrors of war and the anticipation of future tragedy. But dominating the space, and juxtaposing Johnstone, is the vibrant and highly stylised 1926 painting, The Hunt, by Robert Burns, which depicts an exotic scene of the naked figures of Diana and her nymphs that once decorated Crawford’s tearoom on Princes Street. 

Up the ramp is the second gallery, Bold Visions – Scottish Art 1900-1945, where we meet the Macdonald sisters (Margaret and Frances), Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert Macnair, who developed the distinctive early 20th-century Glasgow School style in design and art.

It is pleasing to see the Macdonald sisters presented in their own right, rather than just referred to as the artist wives of Mackintosh and Macnair. 

The Mysterious Garden by Margaret Macdonald displays the sisters’ passion for fairytale imagery and the representation of women, and is shown alongside a watercolour from Mackintosh’s time living on the French border with Spain. 

An enigmatic painting in muted blues and greys of a veiled white woman in a cape or coat that creates a circular shape so you only see her head as she moves from left to right. Mysterious static faces watch her from the top of the canvas in a line
Margaret Macdonald's 1911 work, The Mysterious GardenNational Gallery of Scotland

The room is shared with the creative and pragmatic artist Anne Redpath who would paint on both sides of hardboard or plywood because she was short of materials. We also encounter the Scottish colourists, who were inspired by the French avant-garde and painted in markedly brighter colours than those who came before.

Continental influences

The exhibition also introduces the influence of 19th-century French and Dutch realism on the modernist portrayals of contemporary rural life by the artist group called the Glasgow Boys.

Operating at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, the Glasgow Boys represent the beginnings of modernism in Scottish painting by their rejection of academic subjects and painting style.

A gallery space with white ceiling, wooden floor, a red introductory wall and spotlights onto the works hung, while two visitors are silhouetted looking at them
William Johnstone's A Point in Time, 1929/1937, gives its name to the first room, which is dedicated to Scottish art in the 1920sGillian Hayes, Dapple Photography; Courtesy Hoskins Architects

A lesser known adjacent movement, which I was pleased to see covered, is the Glasgow Girls, a group of women artists and designers active in Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century.

Inspired by the arts and crafts style, the Celtic revival and European art nouveau, these artists pursued different styles in a range of art forms. Prominent names include Bessie MacNicol, Jessie Marion King and the Macdonald sisters. 

Focus on… Architecture

Our approach to the National was determined by several key elements from the brief: to improve accessibility of the entrance and facade; significantly increase the space for art; and to optimise visitor circulation through the entire complex.

All within the context of working on an important, A-listed building, in the heart of a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A key goal was to drive the majority of visitors to the gardens level entrance. Significant landscaping has reconfigured and dramatically improved access to the gardens, as well as introduced a system of ramps that deliver visitors to a new terrace in front of the entrance concourse.

The entrance has been redesigned to be more welcoming with the removal of a narrow, revolving door and addition of a new canopy and signage.

Former office space that acted as a barrier between the concourse and lower-level galleries, forcing visitors on a convoluted route via the level above, has been carefully reconfigured to make new lit and conditioned gallery spaces.

Together these meticulous interventions help to properly integrate Scotland’s art collection in the overall visitor experience, as well as within the historic city.

The team overcame several significant challenges in the delivery of the project including excavating beneath a grade A-listed building and over the busy mainline railway, as well as the discovery of significant unknowns during construction.

These included undocumented asbestos, concrete structures and archaeology, not to mention the feat of building in a tight, busy city centre location at the heart of a World Heritage Site.

We are pleased that The National remained open throughout construction.

Thomas Hamilton is director at Hoskins Architects

The next gallery, Picturing Landscapes and Framing the City, 1730-1930, gives visitors views of Edinburgh’s Scott monument and gardens to George IV Bridge.

And cleverly juxtaposed with the window’s views is a painting of the city 200 years ago by Alexander Nasmyth showing a changing Edinburgh, but one that remains instantly recognisable today. 

A woman looks at a brightly coloured symbolist work of art close up
Robert Burns's 1926 painting, The Hunt, is completely engrossing in how the different elements of huntress, leopard and foliage intertwine in their bright clashing colours

Symbolism and Celtic Revival, 1885-1918, looks in detail at the artist Phoebe Anna Traquair’s majestic series of richly coloured and detailed embroideries, The Progress of a Soul, 1895-1902. I loved the mindfulness of this piece and pulled up a gallery stool to sit and enjoy it. 

I enjoyed the Art in the Making gallery, which focuses on how an artists’ work develops. It was interesting to compare and contrast the loose brushwork of Daniel Macnee’s Study for A Lady in Grey and its finished, tightly painted 1859 counterpart, A Lady in Grey.

The section titled Ballads, Myths, Poems and Romances contains the King’s Quair screen (1867-8), by the pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott. Based on a poem by King James I of Scotland (1394-1437), each leaf of the screen illustrates an episode of the poem. I also enjoyed the detailed information on the conservation of this piece. 

National treasure

Lastly, Romance and Reality Scotland 1800-1895 displays dramatic highland landscapes, which made me feel I was walking through the novels of Walter Scott. The pièce de résistance is Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, 1851, which is so famous it is almost part of our national DNA.

Among this romanticism is a change of tone, with evocative photography by photographic pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.

In terms of accessibility, the venue has improved significantly with new, larger lifts, but there are still problems in reaching the entrance via Princes Street Gardens. Visitors must follow what the website states is a “step-free, gentle winding pathway of approximately 200 metres, or via a flight of 29 steps”. As the path meanders away from the National this may be an obstacle for mobility impaired visitors.

One gallery frames a view out onto the city of Edinburgh with large open windows and a view across the grass to the Scott Monument
The view of the Scott Monument from the Picturing Landscapes and Framing the City galleryGillian Hayes, Dapple Photography; Courtesy Hoskins Architects

The Changing Places toilet is on Level 3, wheelchairs are available to borrow and there is an area to charge mobility scooters, as well as accessible toilets near each gallery. There is storage space for buggies and lockers are available for £2.

Wide benches provide seating inside and lightweight gallery stools are available. There are large-print guides in each of the display spaces and QR codes to access the Smartify audio description of some objects. Some labels are written by school pupils, which adds another dimension to the artworks.

The staff were informative, helpful and more than happy to share their knowledge. But I recommend you plan your visit using the website.

The new Scottish Galleries successfully portray the range of artists working between 1800 and 1945. While they don’t have capacity for the inclusive artistic Scotland that exists today, they certainly provoke interest to find out more, and really do provide a grand day out.

David Johnston is a retired occupational therapist and is a visitor assistant at the V&A Dundee

Project data
Main funders
Scottish Government; National Lottery Heritage Fund
Hoskins Architects
Exhibition design
Graphic design
Matt Bigg; Surface 3
Speirs Major; Derbhile O’Shea
Project management and principal design
Gardiner & Theobald
Quantity surveyor
Gardiner & Theobald
Clerk of works
Tilbury Douglas Construction
Structural engineer
Narro Associates
Mechanical and services engineers
Harley Haddow
Landscape architecture
Conservation architects
Simpson & Brown
Fire engineer
Addyman Archaeology
Filmed fly-through
Stroma Films
DNCO; Norsign
National Galleries of Scotland; school pupils
Absolute Museum & Gallery Products
Display cases
Click Netherfield; Elmwood
BSL filming
Deaf Action; Trudi Collier
Audio described tour
Kirin Saeed
Access introduction films Media Education
Media Education

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