THE National Portrait Gallery lacks images of Scots the general public would recognise or could name, writes Lesley Riddoch
Is the Scottish Portrait Gallery capturing the zeitgeist of modern Scotland? Is it meant to?
Reaction to the gallery’s renovation has been overwhelmingly positive since it reopened at Christmas. There’s no question the building’s interior looks splendid – but what about the contents? I found myself mightily disappointed by the relative absence of modern Scots on display and slightly bored by the much larger areas given over to “imperial history.” Hey ho, I thought. That’s just me.
But then last week, the genial giant and subversive sculptor George Wyllie died and I found myself thinking about his curious absence from our National Portrait Gallery. George was universally popular.
With the Straw Locomotive, 80-foot Paper Boat, giant nappy pin outside the Glasgow Maternity Hospital and Walking Clock outside the bus station, George fused everyday life, industrial heritage and Glasgow humour together like a master welder.
When artwork for the M8 was first proposed, George suggested an empty candelbra at the Edinburgh end and lit candles at Baillieston. Cheeky monkey.
In a world where culture is still the preserve of the few, George was a democratising force. Everyone who saw his sculptures and installations could hold an opinion about art. The Straw Locomotive hoisted up on Glasgow’s Finnieston crane was fun, daft, spectacular and – swaying gently over the largely shipbuilding-free landscape of the Clyde – profoundly sad.
I think it’s no overstatement to say the man was loved. And yet, there is no image of George Wyllie on display in Scotland’s Portrait Gallery. Indeed – as far as I can see – other important artistic contributors to 20th century Scotland are either missing or underwhelming. People like Norman McCaig, Sorely MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith and Hamish Henderson. People like the current super-league of artistic talent from Makar Liz Lochead to Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Booker prize winner Jim Kelman.
In fact, when you start to think about it, the list of well-loved, internationally respected, larger than life, modern-day Scots missing from the walls of the portrait gallery is huge. Of course, there are reasons for that.
The gallery was banned from commissioning portraits of living Scots until the early 1980s so the collection is inevitably skewed towards high quality older pieces. The new gallery opted to keep historical context and chronology in its exhibitions instead of covering its walls with random, assorted images – the “scattergun” style adopted elsewhere.
That’s fair enough. But that overall philosophy makes the isolated staircase locations of the Alison Watt self-portrait and the few modern Scots “heids” on display all the more plaintive, uninterpreted and alone.
The gallery owns 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings and 38,000 historic and modern photographs. So even with extra space, some tough choices had to be made. It strikes me the decision to axe the previous large display space for 20th century portraits was the wrong call.
The hopelessly inadequate ground floor space means portraits of modern Scots can only be shown on rotation. I’m left with the feeling “my” Scotland isn’t in the portrait gallery. More important – I didn’t even expect it to be there in the first place. I suspect I’m not alone.
One critic praised the gallery’s renovation but commented: “The final display here feels cursory and ill-thought-out. A mishmash of colour photos of celebs such as Susan Boyle and David Tennant is all very well, but where is the former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine or, for that matter, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond? Most surprising of all is the absence of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.” Well, quite.
So last week I went on a quick tour of the portrait gallery with acting director Nicola Kalinsky. We wound up in a room dominated by full-length portraits of King George III, his wife Charlotte and portrait painter Allan Ramsay. I didn’t recognise any of them. Let’s face it, one king in a wig looks very much like another.
Nicola told me the power demonstrated over royal sitters by a mere commoner like Ramsay was a fascinating element of the three works. Fair enough. But if it takes a full wall to demonstrate that nuance – space that could display contemporary Scots – George, Charlotte and Allan would be in my basement hyper-quick.
Since my philistine credentials have now been fully established, let me be blunt. In 1746, the Hanoverian monarchy and the new British State were triumphant. Every street name around the portrait gallery bears testimony to that fact. King George, his wife Charlotte, his dad Frederick, his Princes and his country’s symbol – the English Rose – cannot be airbrushed from Scotland’s national story.
But evidently, modern Scotland can. This is no nationalist point. Scotland can no longer afford an outdated divide between upstairs and downstairs, British and Scottish, formal and informal, high culture and low, rarefied and popular.
Should the work of George Wyllie and other modern Scots be displayed elsewhere – the People’s Palace perhaps? Is the “people’s” culture always destined to be tucked away from the majestic mainstream lest it clutter, belittle or diminish “important” collections? “Important” in whose eyes and from which cultural perspective? Who runs Scotland’s “national” galleries and who are they running them for?
Scots need space to see ourselves as we are today – shaped as much by the fresh currents of the last century as the powerful tides of centuries past. We need to see how modern artists view modern Scots – and those talented artists need commissions.
If such work isn’t meant to be in a National Portrait Gallery then where should it be? In the Duke of Buccleuch’s house? Does even he have the space?
Just for once, the portrait gallery doesn’t need cash to solve this problem. Apparently, it owns a “heid” of George Wyllie, currently sitting in the basement beside other contemporary Scots whose portraits cannot be permanently exhibited through lack of space.
Those priorities can be changed. Gallery bosses can restore the 20th century floor pronto and set up a fund to commission (and display) more contemporary portraits.
King George III or George Wyllie? If push ever comes to shove, it’s a no-brainer.