We have now posted our spring 2017 workshop programme. You can find full details of all five presentations on our programme page: Spring 2017 Programme The series begins on Thursday 12 January 20…
A Paper Presented by Dr Lucinda Lax On 29th November 2019, the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop was delighted to welcome Dr Lucinda Lax, Senior Curator of 18th Century Collections at the Scottish…
Sean Murphy from the University of St Andrews spoke to the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop on Tuesday 1 November. Sean has a particular interest in the relationship between the Scots language a…
On Monday 17 October, the Graduate Workshop was delighted to welcome Dr Stephen Mullen, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow. His paper considered Scottish emigration to the Car…
Thoughts on a visit to a Public Exhibition (6 March):
I have just returned, heavy hearted, from a visit to Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School in Regent Road. Plans are afoot to turn this rather beautiful Greek Revival building into yet another world class five star hotel under the stewardship of a global, sorry “worldly (sic) operator”. Something does need to be done of course, but not another hotel, please. What I found particularly depressing in the exhibition was the inevitable jargonize, much of which I simply couldn’t understand. If you were there, I was the balding one muttering under his breath trying to capture the flow of the prose, and the sense of the proposal. Here’s a snatch – and remember this is an important and controversial development : “It is acknowleldge (sic) by the mayority (sic) of stakeholders that finding such a use is most (sic) appropriate solution to the building’s current situation”. I could scream; I could weep.
Do please call me old fashioned but I can’t help feeling that clarity of expression betokens clarity of thought. If the developers go about their building work in the same way that they craft their English prose, God help the City of Edinburgh. I am attaching a few pictures of the interior. The idea of turning this fine building into a National Gallery of Photography was a good one; it was a shame that, for whatever reason, this was never pursued. It might also have been a fitting parliament building.
The developers’ leaflet and website material set out to reinforce a sense of historical continuum central (or “key”) to their case. To acknowledge that the proposed development represents, in fact, a break from the past, both in terms of design and purpose, would be damaging to their cause. The developers’ language is superficially convincing but in many respects quite meaningless; their statistics impressive but often speculative (“the proof of the pudding etc”). Restoration and redevelopment are inevitably linked to “former glory” and “sympathetic to their surroundings”. These are well worn phrases: subjective at best, clichéd at worst.
How seriously are we to regard the developers’ historical sensibilities?
In their historical survey of Calton Hill, they paint the delightful but laughably inaccurate picture of Provost Drummond (sic) laying the foundation stone for the nearby Nelson Monument in 1784. This is poor – very much chuck it on the wall – history. Lord Provost George Drummond was long dead by 1784 and, as I daresay most school children know, Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The monument was erected in Nelson’s memory after his death. If you take the trouble to climb up Calton Hill, you can read this on the memorial above the door. As with the strangulated language of their exhibition, the developers once again show indifference to their readers. The details don’t matter, they appear to suggest, but I think they do. As citizens of Edinburgh, we deserve clarity. We deserve accuracy. We feel a sense of pride in our city. We deserve better than this sloppiness. We live here, after all. As it happens, we don’t know whether the original architect, Thomas Hamilton, would have considered the punching out of windows and the opening up of the Regent Road door as restoration – forget former glory –nor will any attempt to contextualise or suggest by inference assist. He might well have thrown his hands up in horror at the idea. His conception, in any event, had a wholly different purpose: a civic one.
The proposed “redevelopment” goes much further. Whatever option is adopted– two large accommodation blocks, each as large as the old building are to be erected either side of the old school for the “world’s highest spending visitors”. Ancillary buildings –another interesting example of use of language – are to be demolished. “Much needed public space improvements” and ideas about the arts which I don’t fully understand (but sound good), are thrown to us like bait. The irony, though, is that the proposed development – for this is what it is – is to take place in a part of the city whose character is daily being transformed by development work. One just has to look immediately below Regent Road. Why should this new cadre of “uber- tourist” wish to stay in an area which has become prey to developers? Within a quarter of a mile of the proposed site there are three other five star hotels. It is a source of immense sadness that plans to adapt the Old Royal High School for a civic purpose have not been realised in the forty or so years since the school moved premises. Is Edinburgh, then, to be no more than a venue?
Babies and bathwater, horses and stable doors: these are the words that come to mind. “Worldly”, of course, is the perfect word for the proposed hotel, although not perhaps in the sense that the developers might wish.
The first session of the course looked at the vision of the founding fathers of the SNPG and the building which reflects their ideas:
The ideas of Thomas Carlyle heavily influenced the vision of the founding fathers of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. History was the history of great men, and the portrait a valuable means of recreating the great man.
In 1854, Carlyle writing to David Laing, a former treasurer of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, described how, for an historian, it was “one of the most primary wants to secure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after”. The quality of the portrait, Carlyle implied, need not be of the first importance. It would be as a “small lighted candle” by which historical biographies could be read. Indeed, in the gallery’s early years, portraiture was primarily seen as a means of illuminating the historical subject; the artist was metaphorically left in the shade, the labelling of the portraits heavily tilted towards a historical narrative. In the 1850s, a lack of ready finance put an effective stop to the realisation of an historical vision.
Design and embellishments:
The gallery was finally opened to the public in 1889. Its structure and style reflected the past. The fashionable Edinburgh Architect Rowand Anderson, a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prominent Gothic revivalist, chose the pointed arch, the gable and the turret–an evocation of the medieval in the heart of Edinburgh’s neo-classical New Town. He left niches to be filled,” with the statutes of eminent Scotsman of times past”, in the words of the then Lord Justice General. Nowadays, a visitor to the Queen Street Gallery runs the risk of missing them: the red sandstone of the statues is set against the red (Coreshill) sandstone of the building at first floor level. As ever in Edinburgh, one has to look up, but the visitor is well advised to do so. There are twenty eight historical statues embellishing the building, quite apart from the impressive decorations surrounding the main north facing door. There is no sense of the steady historical progression represented in the Great Hall. Here, history takes a more random decorative form. John Knox is conspicuous to the right hand side of the main entrance. The portrait painter Henry Raeburn, pallet in hand, stands in the north east corner of the building. He looks, appropriately, in the direction of his studio in York Place, now known as “Raeburn House” and marked with a pallet shaped memorial at first floor level. Mary Queen of Scots, presiding over the new tram way and flanked by two courtiers, forms the centre piece of the eastern side This group was gifted by a local group who called themselves the Queen Mary Standing Committee, partly to thank the Editor of the Scotsman, John Ritchie Findlay, for his immense financial support for the new gallery but also in recognition of his efforts to secure the admission of women to the University of Edinburgh medical school.
The surround of the main door forms one integral design: the figure of History is on the roofline; below, Scotia is flanked by Industry and religion; further down, three panels depict the fine Arts, the Sciences and the Ruder Arts; below, two roundels contain representations of War and Peace. The two figures either side of the door are William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (with the Crown). William Birnie Rhind was the designer and sculptor of the scheme. The figure of History, originally the idea of the Earl of Bute, has been re designed by the contemporary sculptor Alexander Stoddart, an artist deeply imbued with ideas of history. Stoddart’s Muse of History, unlike her predecessor, postdates the horror of the Great War; the sculptor has woven poppies into her laurels in remembrance of the war dead. She has “new and terrible knowledge”. There is a plaster cast model of Stoddart’s History in the ambulatory and a small exhibition on the second floor of the gallery.
Inside, a sense of history through portraiture is inescapable. A frieze of 155 historical figures, taking us from Stone Age man to Thomas Carlyle decorates the first floor balcony (beneath the ambulatory). The starting point is on the northern side, with the central figure of Caledonia unfurling the procession. The figures march anti-clockwise. The luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment are prominent on the eastern side. The figure of Robert Stevenson, the engineer, holds a model lighthouse on the north; the artist, William Hole, designed the frieze at a time when Robert Louis Stevenson, the grandson of the engineer, was becoming a local and international celebrity.
Hole also designed the vast tapestry style murals which form the backdrop to the ambulatory. They cover almost 1000 years of Scottish history, taking us from the Mission of St Columba to the Picts in 563 to the marriage of James IV to Margaret Tudor in 1503. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is on the individual within the march of history. The Marriage of James to Margaret Tudor provides the perfect starting point to the portraits on the second floor of the gallery, and the time of Mary Queen of Scots.
History through Portraits, the Reformation, to follow:
Some notes on sources to accompany a five week course based at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and organised by the City of Edinburgh Council
Introductory Bibliography:A personal and highly selective choice:
- Thomson, Duncan: History of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, 2011 – excellent on the founding fathers, the objectives and embellishments of the gallery, its later history and collecting policy. Thomson was for many years Director of the SNPG.
- Macdonald, Murdo: Scottish Art, London, Thames and Hudson 2000. A good art historical/historical overview, the text refers to many portraits on display at the SNPG. MacDonald is Professor of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee.
- MacLean Fitzroy, Scotland, A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, most recent edition 2012. This readable overview to Scottish history has been republished on a number of occasions; contains additional chapters contributed by Magnus Linklater.
- Devine, Professor Sir Thomas: The Scottish Nation 1700-2007, Penguin, revised edition 2012. Devine is perhaps Scotland’s greatest living historian. His account of the last three hundred years of Scottish History is scholarly and readable.
- Maclean Fitzroy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Edinburgh, Canongate, 1989.
- Buchan: The Marquis of Montrose, originally published 1913, republished, London, Prion 1996 – the first and shorter of Buchan’s two treatments. Buchan was an unashamed admirer of Montrose.
- Buchan: The Lost Lady of Old Years, 1899, republished Edinburgh, Edinburgh Polygon 2011, with an introduction by James Robertson: a romantic work of fiction dwelling on the 1745 rebellion; contains a vivid portrait of the fickle Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat (1667-1747) (perhaps influenced by Hogarth’s etching acquired by the portrait gallery in 1886?)
Biographical Material: An excellent starting point is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This is available online through the Edinburgh City Library.http://yourlibrary.edinburgh.gov.uk/oxfordreference You require to be a member of the city libraries (and have a membership number) in order to access this rich resource. At the foot of every individual entry in the ODNB, you will find a list of sources (typically biographies), liknenesses (portraits), archive material and wealth at time of death. There is a multi volume edition in hardcopy kept on the shelves of the General Reading Room at the National Library of Scotland. The online work is kept regularly up to date.
Online collections: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/online-collection/ – The Scottish National Galleries’ online collection is a wonderful source which will enhance a visit to any of the national galleries and provide a useful research tool. It’s linked to the NGS galleries home page and allows you to search for portraits by either artist or subject. Its range is considerable; it includes virtually all the paintings and engravings which we have seen during the course.
Alastair’sblog: https://alastairlearmont.wordpress.com/Alastair started this in 2012 for research purposes but quickly realised its educational potential as a means of supplying notes to students. Many of the entries relate to adult education courses. The majority are of Scottish( and of particularly Edinburgh) cultural or historical interest. . A weekly History through Portraiture blogs including photos of the exterior of the gallery begins week beginning 2 March.
5: Exhibitions etc:
A visit to the Scottish National Museum in Chamber Street complements a visit to the SNPG eg discrete sections on the Jacobites (includes the Young Pretender’s sword and some magnificent costume) and the North Berwick Witches ( which links into James VI’s interest in the occult)
The National Library of Scotland’s winter exhibition is entitled “Game of Crowns” and relates to the 1715 Jacobite rising. You can find some interesting online material at http://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/jacobites . The exhibition closes in May.