Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

During the Christmas break, I was through in Edinburgh and visited the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  Apparently it has had £17.6 million lavished on it..

It's a beautiful Arts and Crafts building, and the world’s first purpose-built portrait space. The restoration project has opened up previously inaccessible parts of the building and increased the public space by more than 60 per cent. 

If you go expecting to see lots of paintings of people in a parade of famous and historical faces, you'll be disappointed.  It's more about a portrait of a country and its achievements, and isn't merely paintings, but that's the modern museum way of organising and presenting material.  

There's a new gallery dedicated to photography, showing romantically nostalgic highland landscapes and some gritty urban urchins, as well as Annan's amazing photographs of closes.

Thomas Annan, Close No 101 High Street, Glasgow (Albumen print,1868)
There's 'Pioneers of Science', containing a large and sobering Ken Currie portrait Three Oncologists, with some very interesting contextualising material about the doctors portrayed.  
Ken Currie, Three Oncologists (Oil on canvas 2002)
There's also an amazing cast of the head of Dolly the Sheep - a clone of a clone - which I thought was just astonishing.

It's not a piece of art as such, and isn't credited with a maker, but as far as I'm concerned it's a far more powerful piece than anything Damien Hurst has ever come up with.  You can see the scrim poking out, and the unevenness of the plaster where the cast has run up against Dolly's thick wool, so it has a roughness and lovely textural excitement about it.  It has a beautiful shape a rhythm to it, bourne out of the necessity of being unable to cast any further than the non-woolly parts of her head.  It was cast on the day she was put to sleep, so it's a death mask, and as such is a very poignant image.  
It's not often sheep are named and imortalised, but here Dolly is.  She looks almost like one of the Elgin marbles.
Also on display, unfortunately, was John Bellany's portrait of Billy Connolly - a painting so bad that even when you knew who it was, you still couldn't recognise him....

John Bellany, Billy Connolly (Oil on canvas 2004)

No wonder he had to write who it was underneath - or is it just me?

Anyway, if you do get the chance to go to Edinburgh, do visit the Portrait Gallery.  Or if you've been, let me know what you thought....


  1. I skipped past the modern Scots (think it’s called Hot Scots”?!) on the ground floor, but not before I noticed the somewhat eclectic collection – Karen Gillan and David Tennant, Susan Boyle and Dawn Steele to name just four. Not really what I came to the gallery to see…

    It is impossible to skip past the Main Hall – bright painted frescoes, plenty of gold colouring, makes the hall look Venetian. Except for the statue of Burns in the middle…

    My first target was the photography exhibit, I was looking for the 1966 photo of Bob Dylan. He is captured striding along Princes Street, with entourage struggling to keep up. My notes say that he looks “imperious”! Other photos include a stunning large scale Scottish landscape, looking wonderfully green and isolated. I was surprised to find that the photographer had photoshopped all evidence of mankind from the picture – removed sheep, fences and roads. Not what I would have done, perhaps. Also entrancing were the photos of Glasgow tenements and closes of the nineteenth century as described by Judith. Not my city, but a fascinating view of what it was like.

    My award for the photo with the oddest title – “Man with Kale”.

    The painting of the three oncologists was eerie. The luminous paint made them look like ghosts, and the painting is large – about 6ft by 8ft. It stopped me in my tracks. Further in this section there is a series of painting by John Lavery – one of the Glasgow Boys. His paintings of the First World War are interesting because they are a record of the time – like reading eye witness accounts. However I found his style rather bland – nice skies right enough, but not otherwise striking. And they knighted him? For me his most interesting painting was the one of the meeting with the surrendered German fleet captains – fly on the wall stuff. I was struck that I couldn’t really tell which were the allies and which the enemy – we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns, I guess.

    I felt I should really see some portraits, so off to the Royal gallery on the first floor. Many noble paintings here, some by Allan Ramsay. I wonder, did he struggle to get the heads right? His Queen Charlotte and George III had heads which were clearly too small compared to their bodies. The Earl of Bute’s head was too large. Am I the only one to spot this?

    In a separate gallery there is an exhibition of sporting paintings. Fascinated to see horse racing on the beach at Leith (William Reed).

    In the library there are the life and death face masks – including those of Burke and Hare. I was amused by the descriptions of some of the masks for which they had no names – one was “female idiot” and another was “female extreme cunning”.