Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Housed in an historic red sandstone building designed by Scottish architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was established in 1882, moving into the newly completed building on Queen Street, Edinburgh, in 1889, thereby becoming the first gallery in the world to be built exclusively for the purpose of displaying portraits. The building itself was generously donated by philanthropist and owner of The Scotsman newspaper, John Ritchie Findlay. Today the gallery offers visitors the opportunity to view Scotland’s history through the works of Scottish and international artists who captured the influential figures of the day on canvas.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s collection includes up to 30,000 paintings and sculptures, along with around 25,000 prints and drawings and an estimated 38,000 photographs. Beginning in the Renaissance period of the mid-16th to mid-17th century the collection features portraits of Scottish royalty and nobility, with the oldest portrait in the collection being that of James IV of Scotland painted in 1507. Two portraits on Mary Queen of Scots are among the highlights of the collection, (both of which were painted after her death), along with paintings depicting her three husbands and scenes from her daily life. In this time period the portraits were primarily painted by foreign artists and included portraits of influential clergymen and writers.

Continuing through to December 2013, the gallery’s display entitled Blazing With Crimson: Tartan Portraits pays tribute to Highland dress and the tartan fabric readily associated with Scotland. Works include a full-length portrait of Lord Mungo Murray painted in 1683 by John Michael Wright, and a portrait of the legendary Flora MacDonald by artist Richard Wilson.

The development of photography in the 19th century opened up new opportunities for documenting history, and the gallery features an entire section to the photography of Thomas Annan who paid particular attention to the slums of Glasgow between the years of 1868 and 1871 and the common people of Scotland who would not have been the subject of a portrait.

The painted portrait collection contains works of contemporary artists such as John Byrne and John Bellany, with subjects of portraits including Billy Connelly, Tilda Swinton and Robbie Coltraine. In addition to framed painted portraits the Scottish National Portrait Gallery boasts a colourful frieze by William Hole and several statues on the exterior, including statues of Adam Smith and David Hume. Certainly, this interesting museum in Edinburgh is well worth a visit.