THE paint is dry, the floors gleaming, the artworks are hanging poker-straight – and while there are a few technological tweaks still to resolve, the countdown is now on.
In a fortnight, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will open its doors to the public three years after they closed for a major refurbishment of the 19th-century red sandstone edifice.
Today, we give you a first glimpse inside the revamped Queen Street gallery – and what is revealed is a place of beauty and light, where every available space is now used to show off the nation’s vast collection of portraits and photographs. It is a truly national institution where you’re as likely to see images of Paolo Nutini, Gerard Butler and Karen Gillan as Robert Burns, Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Mary, Queen of Scots. And this transformation has all happened on time and on budget – all £17.6 million of it.
Gallery director James Holloway, who took the Evening News on a preview tour earlier this week, says: “I’m not sure the change has been from within, I think it will come from without, from the way the public views us. We’ve always been interested as much in modern living Scots as those in the past, but I’m not sure people have been aware of that.
“Now when they enter the gallery, because we’ve knocked down some walls, they can see the whole length of the place from right to left, and the first people they see will be familiar faces.
“It won’t be the fourth earl of somewhere or other, that they’ve never heard of. It will be Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish to the right, and David Tennant and other young, moody Scots to the left.
“And, of course, our Flaxman sculpture of Robert Burns is still dead ahead. We couldn’t move him.”
The gallery, which was the brainchild of former Scotsman newspaper proprietor John Findlay, first opened in 1889. For decades there had been debate about Scotland’s lack of a national portrait gallery where its heroes, historic characters and other people of note could be celebrated. Findlay’s – at first anonymous – donations, which ultimately ran to £50,000, as well as some government funding, ensured that the gallery was finally built.
At the time, it owned just 324 portraits – most of which had been bequeathed to the gallery – with the majority coming from David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. As well as his collection of portraits of famous Scots, there were also miscellaneous works donated by a Mr W Watson, a Princes Street bookseller, while a further 71 were on loan. These days its collection runs to 30,000 works.
“We have knocked out walls, taken down partitions, moved out offices, all to open up as much space for the actual gallery as possible,” says Holloway. “We’ve increased the gallery space by 50 per cent so we can show so much more of the collection. It’s gone right back to the way it was originally designed and it’s fabulous.”
Now there are 13 galleries in total. But not everything has changed. On entering the gallery, visitors will still be confronted by the red brick of the main hall – in which stands the Burns statue, as well as busts of others such as Stevenson, Scott and Watt – while along the first-floor balustrade is a pageant frieze depicting well-known Scots in reverse chronological order. Above that are large-scale murals of scenes from Scottish history, while on the ceiling is the cosmos, filled with golden stars.
“It’s all been cleaned and the lighting has been improved, and it no longer feels as dark and daunting as maybe it did before,” says Holloway. “People were concerned we were going to paint all the brickwork white, but that was never going to happen. It’s all much more welcoming, though. And we also have a wonderful glass lift from Italy which can take 40 people at a time straight to the top of the gallery – because that’s where you should start.”
There is a timeline to the way the galleries have been set out. They include the Reformation, Scotland’s first portrait painter George Jameson, landscape etchings of Scottish towns in development, through to Jacobite times. From there you walk into the largest space where the Scottish Enlightenment is celebrated.
There are galleries dedicated to tartan, the move towards industrialisation, the role of women in the 19th century and the development of sport in Scotland.
On the first floor there’s an exhibition, mostly on loan from the Imperial War Museum, which traces Scotland’s naval involvement in the First World War. There are also displays of portraits of pioneers of science from the past to the present, heroes of literature and a new gallery looks at migration to Scotland. There’s also the photography gallery and the old Victorian library on the same floor, as well as an innovative “touchscreen gallery”.
Back on the ground floor, there’s a new contemporary gallery as well as the Hot Scots photography, a new education suite, and, of course, a large cafe. Even there, though, you’re surrounded by portraits.
Holloway says: “We want people to feel that this gallery belongs to them, because it’s about them and there are ways to link to the past. We’re still about Mary, Queen of Scots and Robert Burns, but we’re also about the people of Scotland today.”
There is still one space to be filled though – the new donor window. “We have a window engraved with the heads of the original donors, and now we need a new one,” says Holloway. “While we received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, there have been some very generous individuals who’ve donated thousands to the redevelopment. So we’ve commissioned engraver Alison Kinnaird to provide us with a new donors window – and there are some spaces left, so if anyone has a spare £150,000, they can be in there. There are still opportunities to donate.”
Back in 1889, it was reported that for a “varied, effective and altogether interesting interior, there is no building erected in Edinburgh in modern times that will at all compare with this gallery”. The same could be said all over again.
• The Scottish National Portrait Gallery will reopen to the public on December 1. For more information visit www.nationalgalleries.org