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Issue 33 - The National Gallery of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007

 

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The National Gallery of Scotland

In the latest of our series on Scotland's best galleries and museums, Roddy Martine takes a walk round Edinburgh's National Gallery

It can sometimes be confusing when people talk about the National Galleries of Scotland, because essentially this umbrella title encompasses four galleries within Scotland’s capital, and includes the elegant National Gallery of Scotland.

This sits at the foot of Edinburgh’s Mound, immediately behind its sister neo-classical building, the Royal Scottish Academy, to which it is linked by the lower-level Playfair Gallery. The architect William Henry Playfair was commissioned to design both of the original buildings in the mid-19th century, and in doing so made a major contribution towards the boast that Edinburgh is the ‘Athens of the North.’ Both buildings were re-modelled by the architect William Thomas Oldrieve in 1912, and the £30million Playfair project, which links them and can only be described as visionary, was completed in 2004.

For many years I used to go along to the National Gallery and marvel at the collection that was then on view. In those days I never thought of it as anything more than an art gallery where there were some spectacular pictures, but nothing much else to get excited about.

Then in 1984, something extraordinary happened. Timothy Clifford, former director at Manchester City Art Gallery, arrived on the Edinburgh scene and within a year had transformed the building. Out went the drab, monochrome backdrops and in came red walls and green carpeting. Pictures which had remained sleeping for decades in the gallery’s store were suddenly liberated and double hung for all to see.

Of course, there were those who hated the crowding, but Clifford was unabashed. He was simply following the example set by the Victorians who had created this space in the first place, believing that art should be seen, not hidden away.

And the same sentiment applied to the accessories he introduced.

Gilded and carved chairs and marbles and bronzes began to appear, and visitor numbers escalated as the public latched on to the idea that art was something more than just pictures hanging on a wall.

But it was not without controversy. With an annual acquisitions budget of only £1.25 million, some considered Clifford’s ambition profligate when he went after such masterpieces as Canova’s Three Graces and Bernini’s bust of Monsignor Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo. But through direct Treasury grants, private charities, funds and foundations, as well as private donors such as Sir Paul Getty, he got them and they now have pride of place.

There were also those who criticised him as being no more than an interior decorator furnishing a private house, but I can live with that. Under his 21 year tenure as director general, the National Gallery of Scotland became both a breathtaking visual and sensual experience. A rather grand private house, perhaps, but then if it fills that critique then that is how it should be.

But enough said about Sir Timothy (he was knighted in 2002). His successor, John Leighton, from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, who took over in 2006, is perhaps a less flamboyant figure, but he too is not above taking risks. For his first Edinburgh Festival exhibition last year he showed the miniaturist works of the little-known 17th century German artist Adam Elsheimer, contrasting them with the huge sculptures of hyperreal people from the contemporary Australian sculptor Ron Mueck. The public loved it.

This year, Leighton’s summer exhibition at the National Gallery includes the largest collection of works by Andy Warhole ever to be shown in Scotland. Once again, he is determined and certain to make a splash.

All of this in addition to the National Gallery’s own remarkable house collection which stretches from the Italian Renaissance, through French Impressionism to some dazzling examples of more modern Scottish works which are housed in the lower gallery. There are works by Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Monet, Cèzanne, Degas and Gauguin.

For a nation of Scotland’s size, the collection is justifiably considered to be one of the best in the world.

The most comprehensive part of the collection covers the history of Scottish painting. All the major Scots artists, including Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart are represented.

Celebrated works on show include Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch or, as it has become better known, The Skating Minister.

You can easily spend a day in the National Gallery of Scotland, and return again the following day for a replay. With so much to take in before strolling into the gallery shop or having something to eat in the Playfair Restaurant, this has truly become a destination ‘must’ for art lovers from all around the world.