First of all I had tea under the eye of John Byrne in the new and comfortable café of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. At the beginning I thought it was Frank Zappa, because of the obvious style of the seventies and the haircut and beard the man in the painting had. What made me uneasy about this were the palette and the brush in his hands, attributes of a painter. So I looked at the plate and learnt that Byrne is a Scottish artist and writer, who also designed animated films and record covers for the Beatles. This initial impression showed that visiting a portrait gallery is first of all a history lesson. But it can also become a journey through time.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery | What is a Portrait?

Great hall

In the overwhelming, programmatically decorated Great Hall of the museum, built in 1889, the visitor felt like a proud citizen of the growing Edinburgh and the newly growing Scottish confidence of that time. It was by the way, John Ritchie Finlay, the chief proprietor of The Scotsman, who donated the money for the richly decorated neogothic building made out of red sandstone. Busts of honorable men from the past are assembled in the hall. In the middle, there is a full-length marble stature of the Scottish poet Roberts Burns by the famous sculptor and draftsman John Flaxman. The statue of Burns is accompanied by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, so artists became the most important people to remember. They are followed by James Watt and the Reverend Thomas Chalmers, Queen Victoria and other figures of Scottish history.

Third floor

After that prelude the visitor enters the gallery with more than 850 works on display on the third floor. These are shown chronologically. Now art history has became an important tool for understanding all dimensions of a portrait. We learn for example that there are a lot of images of Mary, Queen of the Scots, but most of them were executed after her death, which explains the lack of expression on her face. In the full-length, stiff portrait of Mary and the beautiful one of Queen Anne, then Princess of Denmark, every detail has a specific meaning.

Visitors can explore this hidden information with the help of touchscreen hotspots right in front of the art works. Not every painting is accompanied by films, music or comprehensive information. But even the short text on the plate helps to become acquainted with handsome George Seton, Master of Queen Mary’s Household, or witty William Drummond of Hawthornden, a historian and poet of the 17th century. It takes more than one visit to draw near all the historic figures shown in the gallery.

Women of the 19th century

The room contributed to women of the 19th century is remarkable. Either represented in a painting, bust or a photograph their often charmingly focused countenances bridges then and now. Especially the dignified facial features of the writer Susan Edmonstone Ferrier inspire us to find out what she has written. And also the bust of artist Phoebe Anna Traquair which reminds us of Rodins’ portrait of his colleague and lover Camille Claudel, is a discovery.

A blind date with people of the past

Although the formation of a portrait gallery of honourable people is an idea of the past, it must be said that it also works today. Even in the 21st century, people like to personalize history. So we have to be happy that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has been so renovated in such a lovely way. For everybody who likes to have a blind date with interesting people of the past!

Written by a student at ECS Scotland