Scottish Portrait Gallery – first impressions

Yesterday, I had my first swing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which re-opened in December after being closed for a couple of years.   I’d never visited before it closed so I couldn’t compare before-and-after, but I’d been excited to see photos on Twitter of the newly restored entrance hall with its amazing frieze of Scottish noteables and starry ceiling.  I’m a massive fan of the National Portrait Gallery in London, so I was enthusiastic about having this gallery on my doorstep.

The entrance hall was just as fascinating in person as it had been in the photographs, and I look forward to going back at a quiet time to fully study all the large-scale paintings of Scottish history.

The first thing we encountered was the library, with its busts and curious collection of death masks, including Burke and Hare – brilliantly creepy.  We then decided to miss out the busy top floor of historical portraits and focus on the more contemporary galleries, leaving the history for another time.

I’d been looking forward to the Pioneers of Science gallery.  Taking prime position opposite the door is the weirdly luminous ‘Three Oncologists‘ by Ken Currie.  It’s tremendously striking, and, while ugly at first, softens on a longer look – the three men are very human.  I have a feeling that this is one of the pieces I could be visiting on a regular basis.  In the same main space of the science section there’s a swirly Higgs, a genial James Black, and a beautiful little pencil drawing of Watson-Watt tucked away in a drawer.  And the model for the grand James Clerk Maxwell statue on George Street that I keep recommending as part of my ‘tour for physicist visiting Edinburgh’.

However, on looking round this section I wondered – where are the women?  Even without the modern scientists, surely Edinburgh would recognise its role as the crucible of women’s medical education?

It took me a couple of passes around the whole floor to find the women. There’s a bust of one of the medical pioneers (I’m sad to say I didn’t note down which one, and she’s not on the website) hiding in a corner a bit away from the main science section.  There’s also a fantastic group of photographic portraits of Roslin Institute scientists, including Marjorie Ritchie, which is on the back of the wall with James Black on it (unfortunately the website has all the Roslin Institute photos except this one).  It’s a shame these photos are so easy to miss – I certainly did the first couple of times and the person I was with didn’t see them at all.

Further along the first floor, I was drawn to Migration Stories: Pakistan.  Apparently this is the first of three exhibition about migration.  ‘A Scottish Family Portrait’ is a series of photographs by Verena Jaekel and portrays prominent Scots of Pakistani origin and their families. I loved the composition of the various family groups, and how the subjects’ two (or more) nationalities were expressed in dress and decor.  I didn’t have time to sit down and watch the film that’s part of this section, but I look forward to it.

I’d also intend to spend more time on the Romantic Camera section of Scottish photography – some really interesting pictures that I’d like to revisit – modern pictures taken in the style of the photography pioneers and older photos that look surprisingly modern.  The Hot Scots section downstairs has the fun of recognising some famous faces – I liked the very dramatic portrait of Tom Kitchin.

Certainly I look forward to going back to get to know all the galleries better, and to seeing how the gallery evolves in the future.

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