Exclusive:National Gallery in Edinburgh reveals new spaces showcasing Scottish art treasures like never before
It has been an imposing cultural attraction at the heart of Scotland’s capital city for more than 150 years.
But Scottish works of art and their creators have never been given pride of place in the nation’s most prestigious gallery – until now.
The £38.62 million revamp and expansion of the National Gallery on The Mound in Edinburgh is expected to not only boost visitor numbers, but ensure a much higher profile for home-grown artists, and paintings depicting Scottish life and landscapes.
The first glimpses of 12 new displays dedicated to Scottish art treasures have been revealed ahead of their long-awaited opening to the public on September 30.
Finishing touches are being added after five years of extensive work – below the William Henry Playfair-designed temple-style building – to create new world-class galleries dedicated to Scottish art and artists overlooking East Princes Street Gardens.
The new galleries offer twice as much space for the displays of Scottish art, which are expected to be seen by many more visitors as they will be directly accessed from the gardens via the attraction's new main entrance.
The new spaces are filled with natural daylight, in sharp contrast to the “cramped, dingy and unpleasant” basement area where many of the country’s most important paintings were previously displayed.
It has involved extensive excavation beneath the 1859 building and the transformation of the extensions dating back to the 1960s, which were home to the notoriously neglected and difficult-to-find Scottish collections.
They were said to have been seen by less than a fifth of visitors to the National Gallery who had to venture downstairs into a “dead end” part of the attraction.
Former print rooms and a library were also turned into exhibition spaces for the project.
Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries, who was appointed in 2006, said he was immediately aware of the need to address the displays of Scottish art.
He told The Scotsman: “I could clearly see that, while we had built up an amazing collection and there was a lot going on in terms of the programme, in terms of the displays of Scottish art at the National Gallery we needed to do better.
“If you were coming in here you would walk around and enjoy Italian, French, Dutch and Spanish art. If you were really observant you would spot a set of narrow steps at the back of the gallery down into what we used to internally call the B-wing.
"You would have encountered a rather cramped and confined space, with no natural daylight, where the Scottish collection was hung cheek by jowl. It was a disappointing experience.”
Designed by the leading Scottish firm Hoskins Architects, who were appointed in 2014, the project was originally costed at around £9m. But by the time work got underway in 2018, the bill had risen to £22m.
It has been dogged by delays and significant setbacks, including the sudden death of award-winning architect Gareth Hoskins in 2016, the dropping of a planned extension of the building into the gardens by several metres because of the cost involved, restrictions on the construction work during the pandemic, and the discovery of damp penetration and asbestos in the building's modern additions.
Sir John said: “It’s been a very complicated project, with lots of engineering and construction challenges to overcome, but we’re there now, with the galleries about to open. We’re delighted with the results. The art really pops off the walls now and the Scottish collection has never looked better.
“In some ways, the project is about the quality of the experience we’re offering now. We've given the art room to breathe. You can stand back from masterpieces that you might not have appreciated before.
“It’s also very important that you’ll be able to circulate more easily through the whole building now. You can go round the Scottish collections and end up where you started without having to retrace your steps.”
The new spaces showcase more than 130 works by artists including William McTaggart, Anne Redpath, Phoebe Anna Traquair, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and David Allan.The new exhibition spaces cover the period from around 1800 to 1945, giving visitors to the National Gallery the first opportunity to see some of the best Scottish works of art created in the first half of the 20th century.
Dr Patricia Allerston, deputy director and chief curator of European and Scottish art at the National Galleries, which has three major sites in Edinburgh, told The Scotsman: “Officially, the cut-off point for what we had on display at the National Gallery was 1900. For anything after that you would have had to go to Gallery of Modern Art before.
"However when we did a lot of visitor research it told us that people expected to see work from the 20th century, particularly work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Scottish Colourists. We pretty much go up to to the end of the Second World War now, which provides a natural break, with Anne Redpath the most modern artist in the displays.
"We are extending things because we don’t want people to be disappointed, but also because artists can have different meaning in different galleries depending on the other work that is shown. You can get a really interesting insight into an artist by showing work that came before.”
Sir John said: "Previously, it seemed like there was something of a hierarchy, with the important stuff on the main floor and Scottish art somehow relegated to a rather cramped and dark basement.
"We’ve flipped that around so that you now come in the main entrance from the gardens and are drawn up into these new clean, light-filled galleries and wonderful displays of the best of Scottish art.
"I think we’ve really done justice to the Scottish collection. Scottish art is now shown on equal terms to the best from the rest of the world. We want people to become more aware of the great tradition of Scottish art and appreciate what I’d regard as a golden period in the history of the visual arts.
"People in Scotland are rightly very proud of its literary, poetry and music traditions. They're perhaps not so aware of the visual arts. I hope this project will go some way towards changing that and that people will really appreciate the likes of Phoebe Anna Traquair, William McTaggart, the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys when they see their work in their new home.”
A key element of the project has been to make the National Gallery more welcoming and accessible for future generations.
Sir John added: "We know 19th-century neoclassical classical buildings can be quite imposing and intimidating. By placing a main entrance in the gardens, we want people to stroll in and feel that it’s a special space, but also that it’s inviting.
“It does feel as if we’ve created a new gallery here. We’re giving people a different experience. The spaces are more contemporary, the architecture is cleaner and the pictures look wonderful. It’ll be a whole new experience right in the centre of the nation’s capital.”
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