Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Edinburgh

Update: 30/8/2012

My second visit to the Portrait Gallery.  Having been inspired to visit Pitlessie in Fife on account of the painting by Sir David Wilkie of Pitlessie Fair, it seemed appropriate to visit the painting again.  On reaching the second floor, we were offered help and on mentioning the trip I’d made to Fife, discussed the painting with a member of staff. 

We then explored the first floor and there is a selection of portraits of scientists.  There are also activity ideas for children including a selection of cards which attempt to engage them with what they have seen.  One is concerned with a portrait of Peter Higgs and the Higgs boson.  The portrait is exhibited along with a picture of formulae on a blackboard.  Another activity card concerns John Logie Baird, “the first person to publicly demonstrate television.”   A third card shows the death mask of Dolly the sheep, who was cloned at the Roslin Institute. 

There is a small exhibition of paintings by John Lavery who was commissioned to paint pictures of the River Forth and some of the defence installations during the First World War.  These include:
The Firth of Forth, September 1917
The Fleet: a misty day, Firth of Forth
The Forth Bridge
The Firth of Forth: Wind
The Air Station: North Queensferry
The Naval Base, Granton
A Deck Hand, North Sea Patrol, Leith
The Aerodome, East Fortune, 1918
Rosyth, the Principal Base of the Grand Fleet, 1918
The American Battle squadron in the Firth of Forth, 1918

Lavery also produced a painting titled German Naval Surrender.  Apparently, unknown to the German officers who had surrendered the German fleet, Lavery was present at the scene dressed in uniform.  The German fleet was later scuppered in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands to the north of the mainland of Scotland.

The bookshop is well worth a search for interesting items.  I bought Portrait of the Nation: an introduction to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  This has a two page spread of Stornoway Harbour which featured an improvement in the form of a herring based industry and incomers with cattle and sheep.  This was also a port from which many islanders emigrated forming the diaspora found all over the world. 

The gallery has innovative ways of ‘looking’ at the people who have arrived and left Scotland, and even leaving a mark whether in history, science or the landscape itself. 

30th July 2012

Growing up in Edinburgh, this Queen Street Museum (the locals used this name to differentiate it from the Chambers Street Museum) housed Scottish Antiquities as well as the National Portrait collection.  From memory we were much more interested in the gruesome guillotine in the historical section than some of the portraits.  We were marched down in school groups and got as much Scottish History as was available only in primary school. My recollection of history and art appreciation at secondary school was more about the US Civil War and WW1 and modern art (this was the 1960s).

With a major investment in the museums and galleries sectors within Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, the building in Queen Street has been refurbished within and retains an almost neo-gothic appeal, with a nod to King Ludwig and the Marquis of Bute. 

Prof Whitestick outside the entrance to
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Queen St, Edinburgh
30 July 2012

We entered from the York Place, Queen Street end and there is construction work here on the roads.  Take care and keep close to the wall of the Portrait Gallery as you are walking up a ramp and soon a flight of stairs will appear on the right.  If entering from the other side tap the wall. 

At the door a guard indicated the information desk and I asked about general facilities and access for visually impaired people.  The desk contacted Meg Faragher, SNPG Learning Coordinater and has coordination role across the NGS portfolio.  I explained about my familiarity with some of the collection before I lost my sight and while could do the contextual analysis of the Scottish historical aspect, I was unable to see much of the detail. 

We discussed other galleries and I was told that the Edinburgh galleries have started installing Tablet information touchscreens with a pair of listening posts.  They have also invested in quite a lot of recorded audio description but funding for linking this to an accessible format has delayed the roll out at Queen Street. 

Meg had a list of events in large print format for visually impaired people and there is a good programme outside the peak summer.  However, The Drawing Room has been discontinued "due to low take-up".  Getting through to the various visually impaired demographics is difficult.  I have heard these comments in London, mainly when a programme has been disrupted through rebuilding, funds and staff changes. 

Prof Whitestick with Robert Burns
Great Hall
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
30 July 2012

That said we found the shop a real Alladin’s Cave with many books on various subjects which the National Galleries of Scotland had covered over the years.  We took the lift (a huge transporter/elevator) to the 3rd floor and found ourselves staring at Mary Queen of Scots. 

At this point Heather, who had been at the desk, offered to go round the Reformation to Revolution Gallery (1).  This was a real treat and we discussed the characters from James IV to Queen Anne.  These include many “Parcels of Rogues-Burns” and we found a lot of features to talk about: the detail of Henry Lord Darnley, including his sword and feather in his bonnet; the pictures of Mary Queen of Scots as a widow in white mourning after the death of her first husband (she had three) and Mary of Guise, her mother.

Much of the popular knowledge of Mary can be summed up by Liz Lochhead’s poetry, and there is the (ghastly) book written by Antonia Fraser.  Many of the staff in galleries live with these paintings on a daily basis and I found Heather a mine of information on the detail.  For example, I could not make out the sparrowhawk in the hand of the young James VI (it is above a portrait of George Buchanan).  Heather was able to anticipate the unfolding of the history as portrayed in these pictures.  It was fascinating to hear this from another Scot; we probably had put the context of symbology, history and rewriting of Scottish history together in our own ways.  There was a fascinating BBCRadio3 Nightwaves programme which came from the gallery.  Robert Crawford summed up the context best in my opinion. 

This was my first visit to the refurbished gallery and now that I have re-familiarised myself with the building and found some very old chums (pictures), I look forward to dropping in again.  The guards have tartan uniforms and I found many of them knowledgeable about their own favourites.  Last year I had spent a whole day going round Modern1 and Modern2 and at less busy times it is usually possible to find some interesting painting, sculpture or other information. 

Many thanks to Meg and Heather for making my first visit so interesting and enjoyable.

These notes were compiled by my companion who noted down some old chums, surprises (Stornoway) and a new take on Renaissance Scotland and the Enlightenment. Lead extraction and production based on the Leadhills deposits are shown in 4 pictures.  Improvements in agriculture, manufacture and fisheries are painted and shown with the characters who initiated the 18th Century improvements. 

The view of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) is the first known picture of this natural harbour.  I have often sailed in and out of Stornoway from Ullapool, also an example of a model village for fisheries.  Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie was an unexpected treasure.  Not long before I lost my sight I read an article about pictures of places from the past, juxtaposed with photographs of what they were now.  I remember driving my father to Pitlessie, having lunch in the pub in the painting and wandering around the village.  It is on a road from the M90 towards Falkland, Cupar and St Andrews (Fife)

Prof Whitestick in The Village Inn, Pitlessie with
copy of Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie
Pitlessie, Scotland
28 August 2012

View of Pitlessie Green
(location of Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie)
Pitlessie, Scotland
28 August 2012

Gallery 1 – Reformation to Revolution

Mary, Queen of Scots (The Cobham Portrait)
Pierre Oudry 1578

Sir James Balfour (1600-1657) after 1630
PG 1551

James VI
Artist unknown

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) 1794
David Martin
PG 822

Gallery 3 – John Slezer: A Survey of Scotland

View of Stirling Castle c1670
Jan Vosterman
NGL 001.99

Seton Palace and the Firth of Forth c1639
Alexander Keirincx

The Bass Rock – The East Syde of the Bass” c1693

Rosslyn Chapel – The Chappell of Rosslin before 1693

Gallery 7 - The Age of Improvement

A View of Stornoway
James Barret

Lead Processing at Leadhills 1780s
David Allan

Four paintings:
Pounding the Ore – NG 2834
Washing the Ore – NG 2835
Smelting the Ore – NG 2836
Weighing the Lead Bars – NG 2837

Pitlessie Fair 1804
Sir David Wilkie
NG 1527

Books bought include:

The Intimate Portrait by Stephen Lloyd & Kim Sloan
Warhol – a celebration of life … and death by Keith Hartley
Gerhard Richter – Paintings from Private Collections edited by Gotz Adriani
The Discovery of Spain: Goya to Picasso

Postcards bought include:

James VI and I 1566-1625, King of Scotland 1567-1625.  King of England and Ireland 1603-1625 (as a boy) about 1574
Arnold Bronckorst (active 1565/6-1583)
Oil on panel 45.7 x 30.6 cm
Purchased 1925

James VI and I 1595
Adrian Vanson (1581-1602)
Oil on panel 72.9 x 62.3 cm
Purchased 1886

Prince Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807) c1746-47
Maurice-Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788)
Pastel on paper 61 x 51 cm
Purchased with aid of the Art Fund 1994

Lady Arabella Stuart (c1588-1615) c 1605
Robert Peake (c1551-1619)
Oil on panel 90.2 x 70.4 cm
Purchased 1884

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley 1545-67
Consort of Mary, Queen of Scots
by Hans Eworth 1555
oil on canvas 70.4 x 55.2 cm
bought 1980

You can get more information about the Portrait Gallery's Access Programme for the visually impaired at http://www.nationalgalleries.org/education/access-programmes/

More general information about the gallery is available on the following links: