Tim Cornwell: Old Masters take their places in Bute House

CANNY visitors to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery since its wholesale revamp last year will have noticed, of course, that Sir Henry Raeburn’s classic 1787 portrait of the fiddler Niel Gow is curiously absent from the new displays.

Inquiries revealed that the painting, one of the greatest Scottish portraits in history, is now on loan to Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence.

The National Galleries of Scotland has been “refreshing” the picture collection at Bute House in consultation both with Historic Scotland, which owns it, and with Alex Salmond himself.

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The NGS list 26 paintings on show at Bute House. There are safe choices: Still Life with Gladioli by George Leslie Hunter, Roses in a Grey Jar by his fellow Colourist SJ Peploe, Rainy Day, Pittenweem, by Sir William Gillies.

But transfers in this winter, 11 of them, include not just Raeburn’s Gow – a beloved thoughtful portrait of the aging fiddler. There is also Alexander Nasmyth’s full-length portrait of Robert Burns, painted after the poet’s death (Nasmyth’s iconic 1787 head and shoulders portrait is still in the portrait gallery).

There are Sir Walter Scott and his friends at Abbotsford, by Thomas Faed, and another famous Scottish musician, the 20th-century accordionist Jimmy Shand, by George Bruce.

It might be tempting to have a go at Mr Salmond, or the NGS, for depriving the wider Scottish public of these works. But the loans, a galleries spokeswoman points out, are “ambassadors” showcasing Scottish art and culture to prominent visitors and delegations from all over the world

Fair enough. It’s the political choices of portraits that are far more interesting. There’s been a serious reshuffle this winter of the faces that surround the FM at work.

Of about a dozen paintings that have left Bute House recently, one of the first to get the boot was a Bute. Allan Ramsay’s portrait of John Stuart, the Third Earl of Bute was “transferred” to the portrait gallery for its reopening in December. He hangs there now, between King George III and his Queen Charlotte.

The Third Earl was tutor to the young George III (and rumoured lover of his mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales). In 1762 a grateful king made him First Lord of the Treasury – the first Scottish PM since the Act of Union.

John Stuart was Ramsay’s great patron, and introduced the Scottish portraitist to the English court, helping make his career. It’s one of the painters greatest portraits, so it’s great to have it back in the gallery.

But Bute’s appointment as a royal favourite, with the salacious hint of “backstairs influence”, was seen as an attempt to reassert the power of the crown.

He resigned just a year after taking office amid a furious backlash of anti-Scottish sentiment in England. He was the target of vicious caricatures, sustained attacks by the journalist John Wilkes in the North Briton magazine, and even an assassination attempt. Easy to see why Mr Salmond might relish the picture’s departure.

In with the new, by contrast, is Sir Herbert James Gunn’s portrait of Thomas Johnston. It shows a wise and thoughtful version of the prominent Scottish socialist, and Labour MP, who was Scottish Secretary of State during the Second World War, and created the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.

He also wrote Our Scots Noble Families, a milestone book in 1909 that set out to uncover just how much wealth the great landed barons of Scotland had amassed, and where they’d resorted to force or fraud to do it.

A clear case of Mr Salmond laying claim to the Labour mantle, says one admirer, in a figure who was a weighty representative of Scotland in London, a wartime rebuilder and social reformer.

The First Minister is “delighted” with the new paintings, but particularly pleased to have the Johnston portrait, the galleries said.

A picture, as they say, is better than a thousand words, and the FM’s choices of personalities surely reveal an old master at work.