| Finally, I can go back into the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh after decades where whenever I tried to go round, I would get so angry I had to leave.|
I used to go there a lot as a child. As I remember, we would often go on a Sunday. I think my parents, having grown up with a habit of churchgoing wanted to do something that elevated the spirit, and connected us to greater questions, outside of our own narrow concerns. Art did that. My father Arnold loved the gallery and was proud of it – he used to say the collection rivalled any of the smaller European capitals,
In my teenage years, I went often, sometimes with a companion, but usually alone. It was free and a space to wander and think, and perhaps to get out of the rain, set amid Princes Street gardens. I had a lot of friends among those paintings – Velasquez ‘Old Woman Cooking Eggs’; a breath-taking El Greco of a boy lighting a match, with a monkey by his side; Raeburn’s seriously graceful Skating Minister, a Titian of a robust, wild-swimming Venus wringing out her hair; William McTaggart’s young girl lying by a burn; a smiling boy with a fishing rod by Jules Lepage.
There were many more – portraits, landscapes, bible scenes. They were food for thought and food for the soul. I read somewhere that looking at paintings uses the same part of your mind as dreaming and I can believe that – there is something meditative yet stimulating about wandering around a gallery. In the mid 1980s, a new director came up from England to sort out our National Gallery. Timothy Clifford obviously didn’t think much of our beloved Scottish pictures and after a few years at the helm, he stripped them out of the main rooms and put them in a space resembling a broom cupboard at the foot of the back stairs. I remember the first time I wandered in and found my friends had been cleared from the familiar spaces. It was shocking. I was upset and angry. Finally, I found the Skating Minister – probably the Gallery’s most famous work, disdainfully shoved in a dark corner. I left the gallery and phoned my dad who felt the same way I did about it. It was an act of cultural vandalism. Before I had felt at home there – now I felt powerless.
While I have visited many temporary exhibitions over the years since, I have hardly been in the main gallery because I always felt the same way about it. There were virtually no Scottish pictures on the walls of the main galleries – they had apparently been judged unworthy to keep company with the grand works in the parlour, arranged to impress an imagined audience of London critics. It felt mean and sad and a sort of statement of how Scottish culture was treated – all too often left out by the bins.
In general, I have never been a fan of picking out artists by nationality. Clearly the great movements in art cross national boundaries. There may be a case for hanging Dutch schools or French Impressionists or Italian Renaissance paintings together – but time is usually more relevant than place when it comes to art. I visited the Kunsthaus in Copenhagen and they seemed to have a lot of quibbling, legalistic descriptions on their pictures explaining why so and so who was born in Iceland or Sweden was actually partly Danish and therefore could have their work hanging in the Danish rooms. Some of their best pictures obviously fall into this category. It is all a bit ludicrous. As a pro-European, I would like to see paintings hung more freely.
So I was nervous about visiting the new Scottish wing. I felt that what would be better was just to hang Scottish paintings among the European and world artists who influenced them. They should be enjoyed for themselves, I felt, instead of being forced into the template of a national story. But anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. The Skating Minister is in the main gallery and so are some other Scottish painters. The boy with the fishing rod is in the Scottish wing even though the artist was French. The new wing is a beautiful space with windows overlooking the railway side of the gardens. There are some big pictures which probably haven’t been available to view for a long time. These include a fine Edinburgh cityscape by Alexander Naysmyth – I remember choosing him as an essay subject at school – but I don’t remember why.
There are some unexpected choices, such as a whole room of paintings inspired by Shakespeare plays – I could take issue with this. If you are going to have a drama theme, I felt there ought to be something explaining how the dark night of the Reformation in Scotland pushed theatre underground for a couple of centuries; and perhaps something about the Three Estates, the pre-Reformation classic by David Lindsay – but that is an aside. The choice may have been prompted by the pictures themselves – I have not looked at them closely yet.
The FT critic Bendor Grosvenor liked the new space, but was critical of the hang, calling it ‘muddled’ – mind you he also called Alexander Naysmith ‘Patrick Naysmith’. He wrote:
“Unfortunately, an intellectual incoherence has begun to haunt the National Galleries of Scotland. Consider the start date of the new Scottish galleries, 1800. It ignores the Scottish Enlightenment, that radical development of scientific, philosophical and cultural thought which produced works such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and when, for science, “no place in the world can pretend to a competition with Edinburgh”, according to Thomas Jefferson. The Enlightenment transformed Scottish art and architecture, bringing with it neoclassicism, but its omission in the new galleries means an opportunity is lost to explain to visitors why half the Edinburgh they see through those new windows was built to look like Athens.
And when in 1766 David Hume commissioned portraits of himself and his fellow philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau from the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay, he set philosophy and painting in collision, raising fundamental questions over the limitations and purpose of art. Do we merely see Rousseau and Hume in Ramsay’s portraits, or can we know them? Indeed, a new book by the art historian Duncan Macmillan, Scotland and the Origins of Modern Art, says Ramsay’s portraits are one of the turning points in European painting. It’s a bold claim, but any survey of Scottish art should begin with key works like this.”
On the other hand, the eminent Scottish historian Murray Pittock wrote in the National: “As an honorary adviser to the gallery redevelopment, I am very conscious that the history of the Scottish art now on show only goes back to the Romantic period, but there is a magnificent display of our earlier art in the old main galleries to complement the new Scottish galleries, including the restored George Chalmers painting of Jacobite pastoral, on which I lectured at the galleries last December.” Of course, these things are never easy – the portraits Grosvenor mentions are in the Portrait Gallery. There is probably room for a Scottish art history trail around various museums and art galleries – it could also take in sculptures like the statue of chained slaves in an Edinburgh graveyard, and some of the links to imperialism and the more disturbing and disgraceful aspects of Scottish history.
As for me, I felt happy to be back. For the first time in more than 30 years, I enjoyed the visit, and I look forward to going again, and to finding new favourites as well as renewing my acquaintance with the Old Masters.
First published by the author on her Substack blog A letter from Scotland