Scottish National Portrait Gallery - Part 1

Edinburgh is the home to many museums and galleries which show essential parts of Scottish history. In my opinion one of the most important, impressive and representative establishments is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, located in the New Town. Best way to describe the experience this museum/ gallery is as a visual encyclopaedia of Scottish history, art and notable Scottish individuals from early medieval times until the very present.

History: when it was established and by whom

Portrait of John Ritchie Findlay, founder of this gallery and donor of the building

The building distinguishes itself in the urban landscape of Edinburgh due to the red sandstone blocks with which it was built in a neo-gothic style. The designer of the gallery was Sir Robert Rowand Anderson and it was opened in 1889 to the general public. John Ritchie Findlay, founder of this gallery and donor of the building, features in a prominent portrait and memorial located at the great hall. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery was the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery. As it stands, the gallery has 3 significant thematic sections opened to the public. Firstly, the Great Hall located near the entrance. Secondly, the modern art section featuring Scots from Modern and/or contemporary times and thirdly, the impressive section containing early modern portraits of some of the most important figures in Scottish History.

The Great Hall near the entrance

The Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait gallery has a central location within the establishment and introduces the visitors to key figures of Scottish History in several ways, one of them showcasing busts of national figures such as Robert Burns and Robert Louie Stevenson.

Robert Burns
Robert Louie Stevenson

However, one of the most interesting parts of the hall is the processional frieze, a beautifully painted chronology in reverse of Scottish history with 155 notable figures thereof which starts with the historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who was significantly involved in the creation of both the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The frieze goes all the way back to the Stone age man and in it the visitor can observe some very important figures such as the Stewart kings, Mary Queen of Scots, John Knox, William Wallace, Alexander III and many others. Full images of the frieze along with a virtual tour of the great hall are available here.

Billy Connolly

The experience the Scottish National portrait gallery offers as you go from one part to another is remarkable. After one finishes with what is an introductory small cosmos of Scottish history in the great hall, the next experience can be somewhat unexpected because the exhibition showcases busts of Burns and Stevenson and murals of medieval kings in addition to very large portraits of contemporary famous Scottish personalities like comedian Billy Connolly, artist John Patrick Byrne, actress Tilda Swinton (her paternal great-grandfather was the Scottish Politician George Swinton & her maternal great-great-grandfather was the Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour).

John Patrick Byrne
Tilda Swinton

One of the most remarkable modern paintings I’ve ever encountered was one called “The Three Oncologists”, painted by Ken Currie in 2001. Best way to describe this painting is haunting and its story is significant. Currie had spent time at the Ninewells hospital and Medical School in Dundee where he interacted and observed the work of Professor Robert Steele (left), Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri (centre) and Professor Sir David Lane (right), all crucial figures in Scottish & British medical practice and teaching. The painting relies on a fascinating contrast between light representing the knowledge of humanity and darkness which embodies the diseases oncology tries to cure. In a sense it is a remarkable artistic bit of modern tenebrism. Apart from the processional frieze this painting remained the most ingrained in my mind and left a deep impression.

“The Three Oncologists”, painted by Ken Currie

Within this part there are many other Scottish historical personalities depicted. Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home served one of the briefest premierships (Oct. 1963-Oct. 1964) after succeeding Harold Macmillan. His portrait was made by Avigdor Arikha in 1988. (pic.9)

Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home

The Poets pub by Alexander Moffat was painted in 1980 showing a plethora of Scottish poets and writers such as Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch and others.

Furthermore, we see a part of the modern section focused more on photography with notable contemporary Scottish figures such as former rugby Union Player George Wilson "Doddie" Weir OBE, who has become a leading voice through his foundation “My Name’s Doddie”, which raises funds for research into a cure for MND and provides grants to people living with the condition.

A rather unique photograph is the one of the couple Mike and Sheila Forbes, by Alicia Bruce. The fascinating story involved Mr. Forbes who refused to sell his land to Donald Trump who aimed to expand his property portfolio in Aberdeenshire. In 2012 Mike Forbes won “Top Scot Award” for his continuous resistance against Trump.

The modern section is diverse and can feel familiar because of some of the very famous names depicted. It works very well as a blend of remarkable paintings and modern photography showing us some very interesting figures of contemporary/modern Scottish History. However, as an early modernist historian, I was very eager to explore the next section looking at Stewart monarchs, Jacobites, royalists and much more. All of that and more will be presented in a second part to this article.

A full list of works of art located in the modern section is available here (also the website of the entire institution).

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Vlad Zamfira

Vlad Zamfira (Masters of Arts in Archaeology & History and Certificate of Postgraduate research in History at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland) is a historian and podcaster interested mainly in the History of the 16th century Mediterranean with particular focus to Venetian, Ottoman and Spanish relations during the period between 1559-1581 and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War of Cyprus. Also with a keen interest in the history of the Eighty & Thirty Years' Wars; Scottish and European History as whole.