Scottish National Portrait Gallery

December 2011

Publication: The Times

 

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Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Edinburgh

The £17.6 m revamp of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – which re-opened its doors to the public at the beginning of the month – is, by and large, a great success but has resulted in some missed opportunities.

 

The renovation by PAGE \PARK architects has transformed the dark and sombre Gothicism of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson’s 1869 Arts & Crafts inspired original into a lighter, more accessible modern space.

 

A large glass lift elegantly connects three floors and affords uncluttered sight lines along the length of the building. The addition of a Contemporary Gallery and the reorganisation of the collection into thematic displays result in a more integrated historical interpretation of the collection. Overall, hanging space has been increased by 60% and the café and shop have doubled in size. The elevation of the ceilings and the exposure of the original riveted I-beams create an airy and comfortable atmosphere.  The increased space has been achieved through housing staff in a mezzanine area and the removal of the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities to the National Museum of Scotland.

 

The most significant aspect of this reinvigorated and expanded collection – which extends the notion of portraiture well beyond its normally understood boundaries – is the display of photographic material. In the absence of a dedicated national museum of photography, the SNPG offers an arresting substitute that helps to re-emphasise the importance of the photographic art in the way the nation has interpreted and portrayed itself.

 

At the core of the collection of 38,000 photographs are David Octavius Hill’s and Robert Adamson’s pioneering calotypes, made in the 1840s that include the staged portraits of Newhaven fisherwomen Jeanie Wilson and Annie Liston, replete with distinctive striped dress costume and four fish laid out on a board. Elsewhere, Thomas Annan’s series of images of the slums around Glasgow’s High Street, prior to their demolition in 1868, represents a unique social document, which is nevertheless striking because of Annan’s apparent disinterest in the plight of his human subjects.

 

 

The curators have created 17 new chronological displays that fit within five key areas of Scottish historical development – the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Empire, Modernity and the Contemporary. Such a historical-thematic arrangement of existing and new material presents a re-invigorated approach, allowing fresh insights and new connections.

 

The captioning provides some marvellous anecdotal material concerning the images themselves such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s belief that his 1766 portrait by Allan Ramsay presented a much less favourable impression of the French philosopher than his Scottish counterpart, David Hume, in a companion portrait by the same painter, created in the same year.  Apparently, Rousseau was so incensed by his perceived iniquitous treatment that he considered the painting made him look like a Cyclops – and fell out with Hume partly as a result.

 

If there is a disappointment here it is the way that the Contemporary Gallery has been used to present Graham Fagan’s specifically commissioned film, Missing, which purports to present an empathetic impression of a missing person and the effect this has on family. The result is artless and banal. The double-screened projection seems bleak and forlorn in a large gallery that might have been given over to any one of many potential projects. It is only trumped by the ill-conceived ceramic portrait of Baroness Helena Kennedy, which is to be found in the Library, apparently waving to passers-by.

 

The gallery is concerned less with portaiture in the conventional sense and more with the portrayal of the nation, in all its facets, to itself and the larger world. It is clearly already a popular – and critical – success.