Gloomy, subterranean space no longer. After a five-year wait, the ten new, eagerly-anticipated rooms at the Scottish National Gallery have opened their doors, reincarnated as the Scottish galleries at the National. Facing onto Princes Street Gardens, the entrance is just one of the ways this space has been transformed, embracing its central position within the city, and at the heart of Scottish culture.
It’s a Sunday afternoon on the opening weekend, and considering the desolate Scottish galleries which had foreshadowed it, it’s great to see crowds of all ages milling around the rooms, especially as the revamp has cost over double the original budget (raised by donations). However, as you move through the space, the crowds seem to dissipate. It may be the fact it is nearing the end of the day, or it may be the likeness of the work in the final rooms. Nevertheless, Scottish art can finally be seen in all its glory.
The new space celebrates the richness and variety of Scottish art made from around 1800 to 1945. Works are hung in a hybrid between period and theme. Upon entering, you cannot help but be drawn to William’s Johnson’s A Point in Time, 1929/37. The abstract forms and rich colours, ranging from deep blue to red and green, are brought to life by the red wall on which they sit. He called the piece a ‘primordial landscape’ – a fitting start for the exhibition, juxtaposing landscapes of the previous century. The organic forms seem reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe, the plausibility of her influence heightened as Johnson toured North America in the 1920s. The work is said to represent an inner vision, and the depth of tone within colours, seem to reflect the complexity of Johnson’s own thoughts. The swirling forms move and change as you watch them, perhaps alluding to the everchanging landscape, or the world in which Johnson worked.
Surrealism, which Johnson would have seen on his travels, is a prominent focus within the hang – a style which women artists, including sisters Margaret and Francis Macdonald, feared association with, working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and forming part of the group known as ‘The Four’. As a supposed counterculture, their work emphasised the ambiguous relationship between science and philosophy. Once described by critics as ghoulish, their work now seems contemporary in the questions it provokes. Though ambiguous, it is suggested that Bows, 1910, by Frances Macdonald may be a comment on women’s sexuality, with strings of bows suggesting the frivolous and restrictive nature of societal expectations placed on women.
A long gallery runs through the exhibition, connecting the works to the city. Paintings depict how Scotland’s various landscapes have shaped the lives of its inhabitants, and in turn how they have perceived these changes, with the development of Edinburgh into a bustling metropolis. Nowhere is the city’s transformation clearer than in in the work of Alexander Nasmyth, and his 1825 panorama documenting the development of Princes Street. The painting shows the city streets awash with people – not dissimilar from the current city centre on a weekend, though now filled with buses and cars rather than horses and carts.
The National itself is testament to the development depicted, as the painting shows the building of the Royal Institution and the draining of Nor Loch, next to the site where the National now stands. If you look just beyond the painting’s frame, through one of the large windows which run along the gallery and connect you to the world outside, you can see the result, Waverley Station, almost 200 years on from Nasmyth’s vision. Depending on the day, the view will either provide a contrast or convey the gloomy yet atmospheric scene Nasmyth depicted.
The large windows open the space up, making up for the slightly low ceilings – victims of the site’s restrictions. Room after room of art conveys the talent of Scottish artists, but the space does not overwhelm, despite the variety of work on offer. Scottish artists did not have a unified style, however their ability to approach traditional subjects in new ways became a defining characteristic in their work, and finally the National’s display reflects this. Where the Gallery has in the past been criticised, captions now provoke questions, however the work still takes centre-stage.
Well-known artists are shown next to those neglected by history. Particularly inspiring is the work of Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852-1936, an artist who had been in the collection but not previously displayed. Four large embroidered panels depict the journey of the human soul to heaven, and are just some of her works on show, evidencing her ability to work beyond the easel. Traquair said the final panel, Victory, symbolises ‘…the grace of Higher powers, rather than the merits of the individual’; however, Traquair’s merits are undeniable. Rich in colour, with silk and gold thread running throughout, their narrative draws on more traditional themes inspired by poetry, literature and religious text, yet the stitches were in the fashion of the time, Traquair being a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The galleries culminate with Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, a national favourite, seen to epitomise the Scottish spirit, not just because it is on many biscuit tins and whisky bottles.
However, arguably the true ruler of this new space is Callum, a Dandi Dinmont terrier by John Emms, 1843-1912. Not only does Callum watch over his prey, an unassuming mouse lying at his feet, but also over the National itself. A fitting end as this terrier was a major factor in the ability of the Museum to be what it is today – Callum’s original owner, James Cowan Smith, bequeathed today’s equivalent of £2 million to the gallery, on the condition that Callum must remain on permanent display. Once loved by Cowan Smith, Callum’s charm shines through in Emms’ painting, able to be loved by all.
The new space at the National will mean that Scottish artists finally command the same respect as those displayed who originate from beyond the Scottish border. 130 works are displayed in these ten new galleries, but the Ballery boasts one of the largest collections of Scottish art in the world, holding 60,000 objects in total. The current display feels fresh and exciting, but it will be interesting to see how the curators play with this space in the future, and to which artists they give a platform – a way of keeping the space compelling for those who live in city, not just those who come from afar. Can they maintain the current crowds? Only time will tell.
With thanks to Nelly Laycock for this review.