Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery is a fantastic rogue Gothic palace of red-brown sandstone riding confidently among the grey, neo-Classical order of Edinburgh’s New Town. Alexander McCall Smith has likened it to ‘a stately passenger liner moored to the pier of a great harbour’. Now this much-loved building has reopened after a transformation that has created 60% more display space, reopening galleries that had been relegated to offices and bringing hundreds of paintings out of their wraps. Led by director James Holloway, with architects PagePark, the £17.6 million project has restored the building to its original intended appearance.
The world’s first purpose-built national portrait gallery, it opened in 1889 to the design of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, financed by the newspaper magnate John Ritchie Findlay. Sculpted figures adorn the exterior, and in the entrance hall are marble busts and murals by William Hole, all newly cleaned. The collection is arranged in chronological sections, interwoven with themed displays.
A highlight in one of the reclaimed toplit galleries is ‘Reformation to Revolution’, with a loaned 1507 portrait of James IV, and Lely’s portrait of Anne Hyde, on show again after 25 years in storage. Then, there’s an unrivalled collection of Jacobite visual material, and the panache of the Central Hall, with Allan Ramsay’s full-length portraits of the 3rd Earl of Bute flanked by Queen Charlotte and George III in their Coronation robes opposite five swagger portraits of chiefs in full Highland dress.
New mezzanine galleries offer spaces for smaller displays, and there’s a welcome emphasis on the camera, with a new Photography Gallery, and portraits, including Scottish actors Sean Connery, David Tennant and James McAvoy, in the Contemporary Gallery. The joy of the place lies in the way the subjects are put into social and topographical context, by mixing portraits with landscapes, genre scenes and photographs. Stand in the central hall, and you’re at the heart of Scot-tish culture-all for free.
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