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The Many Faces of Scotland
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh)
Member Name: eilidhcatriona
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh)
Advantages: Lots to see, plenty of interesting subjects, well laid out
Disadvantages: Not everything can be displayed at once, photography gallery was closed when we were there
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.
Summary: One of the highlights of my trip to Edinburgh