Review: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery reopens in Edinburgh after £18 million overhaul

By Jenni Davidson | 02 December 2011
A photo of the inside of a libary-style gallery full of cases, books and white busts of men and women
Opening: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Despite being the oldest purpose-built portrait gallery in the world, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is only now being fully put to the use for which it was intended, more than 120 years after it first opened.

Sir Robert Rowand Anderson's striking neo-Gothic red sandstone building was finished in 1889, but only three galleries have been in use, with much of the space taken up by offices and storage and the National Museum of Antiquities, which shared the building.

Now the Portrait Gallery has re-opened following a two-year, £17.6 million refurbishment with 17 new exhibitions and 60 percent more display space.

Happily, the magnificent entrance hall has been retained in all its glory and restored to its original lustre.

This Great Hall features a chronological frieze of Scottish history with a gilded pantheon of kings, queens, saints and scholars processing around the room and a night sky ceiling with 47 constellations of stars.

Elsewhere, though, much has changed. The top floor of the gallery has been made into a suite of rooms housing the historical collections from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Many of these are stunningly lit by roof windows, allowing the visitors to see the paintings in daylight.

Original display cabinets have been restored and re-used, and the oak parquet floor, which looks brand new, is in fact the original 19th century floor, which was previously covered  by carpets.

A lot of thought has gone into each of these rooms, down to the best colour paint to go on the walls to complement the paintings – dove grey for Hume and Ramsay, for example, and deep pink for the Jacobites.

One of the most impressive feats in the restoration is the moving of the wood panelled Antiquaries Library in its entirety, heading down a floor to a room the other side of the building, allowing the top level to be kept solely as gallery space.

The other two floors have a more contemporary feel with white walls and freestanding displays. This is in part to tie in with the type of work on display, but also a practical solution to the problem that the front of the building has a lot of windows and not many walls – a strange quirk in the original design of the gallery.

The galleries are arranged chronologically but with overarching themes, such as The Age of Improvement, Playing for Scotland: The Making of Modern Sport and Blazing with Crimson: Tartan Portraits, making the paintings easier to understand in a historical and thematic context.

The interpretative elements have been kept to a minimum, and thankfully the Portrait Gallery has resisted any temptation to have touch screens everywhere, letting the paintings and photographs speak for themselves.

All the displays in the gallery are temporary to semi-permanent, with the shortest exhibitions changing every few months, while the core historical galleries will remain the same for four or five years.

Key portraits, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Nasmyth's Robert Burns, will stay on view but be worked into the new theme.

Much more space is now devoted to modern portraits and photography, with a opening exhibition, Romantic Camera, looking at one of the key themes in Scottish culture and photography.

Also on display for the opening are War at Sea, a collection of Glasgow Boy Sir John Lavery's First World War nautical paintings, and Migration Stories: Pakistan – the first in a series of commissioned photographs depicting Scotland's immigrant communities, as well as series on Scotland's most significant modern writers and scientists.

Hot Scots, in the Contemporary Scotland gallery, currently includes actor James McAvoy, singer Paolo Nutini and Dr Who actress Karen Gillian.

They may act as barometer for who's in and who's out, but the gallery are keen to stress that it's about depicting the faces of contemporary Scotland rather than bowing to celebrity culture.

If one were to criticise the refurbishment at all, it might be that the contrast between the period opulence of the historic building and the starkly industrial style of some of the new galleries provokes a Jekyll and Hyde.

The previously charming café and shop have also, sadly, been given the standard issue Scandi-modern makeover as well.

But above all, the refurbishment has transformed what was once viewed as a rather dark and oppressive poor sister of the other national galleries into a flexible, modern gallery worthy of presenting the character of a nation.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission free.

More pictures:

A photo of the inside of a modern gallery with oil portraits on the walls and a brown wooden case in the middle
The gallery has opened with vastly more space than it had two years ago
A photo looking downwards from the balcony of a grand museum building covered in mosaics of ancient men with a stone and marble hallway
The Great Hall features a chronological frieze around the walls
A photo of the inside of a modern gallery showing the bust of a man, various cases and a large portrait painting
A temporary exhibition of the work of Sir John Lavery is among the opening displays
A photo of the elaborate dark ceiling of a grand museum building
Hole's design includes a zodiac ceiling above the depictions of Scottish historical figures
A photo of a white bust of a male head inside a gallery with oil paintings on the walls
The star figures range from Saints and writers to scientists and explorers
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