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: