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The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is located in Edinburgh's New Town, near St Andrew's Square. The gallery houses the nations collection of portraits of Scotsmen and women whose lives inspired and changed the world, and whose influence has permeated the fields of science, medecine, philosophy, literature, visual arts, military affairs, the church and sport.
The building itself is impressive, and has a story. The collection was founded by David, 11th Earl of Buchan, in the late eighteenth century, and the gallery itself was opened in 1889 thanks to the enthusiasm of historian Thomas Carlyle and local philanthropist and newspaper owner John Ritchie Findlay. The architect Rowand Anderson wanted the building to be a shrine for Scotland's national portraits; it features statues of poets, monarchs and statesmen watching over Queen Street and North St Andrew Street, with William Wallace and Robert the Bruce flanking the entrance. I found the highlight of the building itself was inside however, in the main hall, where a frieze depicts the main characters in Scottish history. It is best viewed from the balcony above, where you can have fun spotting your favourite villains and heroes from our history.
Entry to the gallery is free, but of course donations are encouraged. We were given a map and decided to head for Gallery 1, where the oldest portraits are located, and work our way through chronologically. The earliest subjects are from the sixteenth century, and feature such sitters as Mary of Guise, John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots. With both of us having a particular interest in this period of history, my mum and I spent quite some time in this gallery. We had seen several of the portraits reproduced in history books, but that really doesn't compare to seeing the real thing. We also enjoyed reading the information plates alongside each portrait, which often confirmed what we thought we knew about the subject or the time in their life that the portrait was from, but we also learned a few things.
A side-room was dedicated to the work of George Jamesone, the first major Scottish portrait painter. His subjects were not of much interest to us, but what we did find interesting was that he was from Aberdeen - our neck of the woods.
Further on in the gallery we came to portraits of the ill-fated Stewarts. There are a number of portraits of both James Francis Edward Stewart and Charles Edward Stewart, both romantic yet ill-fated figures in Scottish history, and instantly recognisable. There is also a portrait of Flora Macdonald, she who smuggled Charles Edward, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, "o'er the sea to Skye".
Later galleries include portraits of luminaries in the fields of science, literature, medicine - just about everything you can think of. Scots have been leading lights in these since such things began. Subjects include the novelist Walter Scott, James Hutton, the founder of modern geology, and of course Robert Burns. There were a lot of scientists whose names meant little to me, but my mum, being a chemist and biologist, enjoyed seeing these faces who shaped her fields of study, such as Joseph Black, chemist.
Sadly, the photography gallery was closed for rehanging, however we did see some twentieth century figures in another gallery. We both enjoyed seeing Poets Pub by Alexander Moffat, which shows a number of major Scottish poets and writers in a pub setting which was based on a combination of their real-life Edinburgh drinking haunts. The figures depicted included Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Ian Crichton Smith and, to my particular interest, George Mackay Brown.
Alongside this area was a display of paintings from the First World War, which I thoroughly enjoyed. They were very evocative, many of them showing ships in the Firth of Forth. Sadly I've forgotten who the artist was.
Having worked our way round the gallery, we headed along to the cafe for something to eat. It being shortly after 3pm, we had missed lunch, but they had some soup left, and some cakes. I had mushroom and tarragon soup, and as they had no bread left to go with it, they gave me a cheese and herb scone instead - which I would have paid for separately anyway as I wanted a scone. My mum wasn't very hungry so she just had a (fairly large) piece of chocolate brownie, and we had hot drinks too. My soup was very tasty, as was the scone. The whole lot came to £10, which seemed very reasonable for a good quality lunch, especially for a gallery/museum cafe.
Following our light lunch, we had a wander round the shop. I bought myself the Companion Guide to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as I had really enjoyed my visit and wanted to look at the paintings at leisure. I've enjoyed dipping into the book since our visit, and I used it as a reference for writing about the building at the start of this review. The only problem with the book is that I keep coming across portraits I didn't see in the gallery and wish I had - obviously the full collection is too large to be displayed at any one time, and of course the photography gallery was closed when we were there.
I had been reasonably keen to go to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, but it wasn't an absolute must-see for me - but having been, it has turned out to be a highlight of our trip. I enjoyed visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London a few years ago, and like that gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is somewhere I would be happy to visit again and again.
Formerly somewhat overshadowed by our other National Galleries, north and south of the border, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has undergone a dramatic transformation recently. It reopened last December following an extensive (and expensive) redevelopment project, and the extended space open to the public is now much more accessible and welcoming.
I wasn't surprised to learn that this gallery has just been nominated for the Art Fund Prize 2012, the UK's 'museum of the year' award. Apart from the building itself, as now revealed, what impressed me most was its novel interpretation of portraiture as 'people, places and events'.
It's a fascinating take on celebrity and ancestry, but there's far more to see here than the traditional paintings of famous Scots. For example, it includes the Scottish national collection of photography, and the 'Hot Scots' display includes the likes of Karen Gillan and David Tennant from Dr Who.
~~A trip to the Gallery~~
My recent two hour visit barely scratched the surface of what the gallery has to offer, and I plan to return soon to explore further.
Anyone else planning a trip should be aware of an apparent glitch with Google Maps that might have caused me problems had I not already been aware of the gallery's location. It's not next to the other galleries on Princes Street/Mound or Belford Road. It is in fact quite a short walk from the main bus station and not far from Waverley (train) station. There are also multi-storey car parks near the bus station. See full address below.
~~The 'new' building~~
Like so many recent renovation projects, this has been a delicate balancing act between modernising and preserving the best of the architectural heritage. The neo-gothic building may not be to everyone's taste but certainly retains its imposing presence in Edinburgh's New Town. The mainly warm red brick structure contrasts quite strikingly with the predominantly stone facades of the area, reminding me a little of St Pancras.
Having just reviewed the Scotsman newspaper on this site, I was interested to read that the gallery was originally championed by the eminent historian Thomas Carlyle; but the building was only made possible through the philanthropy of a former Scotsman proprietor, John Ritchie Findlay. Edinburgh's Queen Street premises finally opened in 1889, shortly after the famous London Gallery moved to its present location near Trafalgar Square.
The interior is if anything more impressive, with stunning architectural features, brightly presented galleries, exhibition spaces and an accessible library with some interesting objects. I was particularly taken with the Great Hall and its unique pageant/frieze. This immediately strikes you as you enter the building but I found it best viewed from the first floor balcony. But ultimately it's the collections that really justify the cost of the building.
~~Portraits and much more~~
Apparently the Scottish National Galleries permanent collection contains more than 65,000 items. With the opening up of the Portrait Gallery, 60% more of its treasures are on display than before - which I can well believe! But I was also struck by the number and variety of exhibitions on offer here - currently 17.
This brief review can't begin to do justice to the scope of the gallery. But for some insight and highlights I'd thoroughly recommend visiting their excellent website - see address below.
Meanwhile, suffice it to say, this attraction is not just about stuffy portraits of Scots 'worthies', though these are very well represented. In addition to portraiture, my initial visit took in the full spectrum of maps, prints, photographs, sculptures, landscape art and more besides. It's also bang up to date.
I appreciated the arrangement by broad themes and trails and was particularly entertained by the trail entitled 'Fur Coat an' Nae Knickers'. Nothing stuffy about this attraction!
The touch-screen information systems are also well worthwhile and truly imaginative. For other ways to explore and interact with this innovative gallery, visit its website (address below) or, better still, visit in person!
~~Cost and access~~
Admission is free. While a charge may be made for special exhibitions, I didn't actually come across this.
Facilities for disabled visitors include wheelchair accessibility throughout, a specially adapted lift and toilet.
~~Other facilities and activities~~
*Café - large and well stocked
*Gift Shop - not fully explored on this occasion but the books looked particularly interesting and informative
*Events - currently 34 advertised events for adults, children and families
*Educational - 'extensive learning and outreach programmes'
The gallery is open daily from 10am to 5pm (7pm on Thursdays).
~~Address & Contact info~~
*Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD
*Website : www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/298-intr​oduction
*Phone : +44 (0)131 624 6200
*email : email@example.com
[© SteveS001 2012. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]