The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is a tale of two extremes. I was taken aback at how incredibly dated, out of touch, and left in the past this gallery seemed. The collection includes a painting by the Scottish School, ‘Interior of the National Gallery of Scotland’, from 1867; honestly the gallery has barely changed. Same colour scheme, similar layout… Despite all this, The Scottish National Gallery’s collection is absolutely second to none. For a fairly small national gallery (it’s around a fifth in size of its London counterpart) it’s collection is supreme, and possibly unrivaled.
Ultra-famous paintings like Sir Edwin Landseer, ‘Monarch of the Glen’, hang alongside world-renowned artists including Botticelli, Titian, Van Gogh, and Monet to name but a few.
It is a highly traditional space with an unimaginative means of hanging artworks throughout; it is efficient, but often draws attention away from higher works. Paintings are hung on traditional, almost industrial chains from pictures rails. They hang at jaunty angles to combat the reflective light, and fight against the garish wall colours – hard blue, blood red, forest green. All this is combined with unappetising, sticky brocade carpets, and a damp, I-don’t-want-to-know-what-that-is smell.
“These well-crafted text panels enrich the visitor experience”
Each work is accompanied by around 50-100 words to explain the painting. These are true gems of well-written information that fuel your intrigue. The text is accessible, leaving room for interpretation but pointing you in the right direction. It’s an almost perfect, desperately hard-to-achieve combination, and the effort of this research is undeniably worthwhile. These well-crafted text panels truly enrich the visitor experience.
On another note, the layout is completely bizarre. You can’t see every painting in a room without circling back on yourself, meaning there is no natural route, which detracts from the experience. The Scottish National Gallery is a remarkably traditional space, and a space that is miles below par. However, it is a collection that is almost unparalleled in its sheer quality and breadth, and most importantly, it is extremely enjoyable.
Around every corner is an awe inspiring example of fine art – every wall has something recognisable, from a pastoral Claude landscape, to Cezanne’s view of ‘Montagne Sainte Victoire’. All this makes you feel like an art buff – every work provokes something in your mind that you’ve seen before, on the telly or in a magazine. It’s genuinely fun to spot things you recognise because the gallery is chock-full of them.
Woven in amongst these artwork celebrities are some widely unknown paintings, but they draw you in all the same. Scottish painters-a-plenty, a traditional yet surprising Danish scene, unusual Flemish portraits, and playfully pastoral landscapes by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough, grace the carpeted walls.
Hendrick Avercamp, ‘Winter Landscape’, c.1630, oil on copper
This lively winter landscape epitomises the 17th century genre of icy outdoor scenes of Dutch life. The photograph doesn’t do justice to the cool bluey tones that perfectly convey the frozen lake. Residents are captured playing a selection of sports on the ice. One of the most recognisable is ‘kolf’, which moved from ice, to manicured fairways, and became golf. It was initially thought that this painting was topographical, showing Avercamp’s home, Kampen. However, it is now widely agreed that the landscape is imagined. It really is an eye-catching painting. The misty sky suggests early evening, and the scene of bustling industry to the left reminds us that play is only possible because of hard work.
Sir Edwin Landseer, ‘Monarch of the Glen’, 1851, oil on canvas
This is the real showstopper of the Scottish National Gallery. The painting that brings crowds from far and wide. You might be thinking, “I’ve never heard of Edwin Landseer, but that really looks familiar…” (this is a thought I had a number of times during my visit). In this case, it’s probably because variations have literally been pasted all over 20th century advertising: The Hartford Financial Services Group, delivery trucks for Challenge Dairies, Nestlé’s North America’s Deer Park Spring Water, Dovecot Studios Edinburgh, Baxter’s Royal Game soup, and most recognisably, Glenfiddich Scotch whisky.
The painting is monumental, not necessarily in size but in presence. The 12 point stag reflects the empowerment and status of the monarchy. He is set in front of an impressive backdrop of Scottish mountains and dramatic clouds, with stunning hues of blue, purple, and grey. The mist surrounding the stag works in the same way that a singer might emerge from mist at the start of a concert – it’s powerful, dramatic, and status-assuring.
‘Monarch of the Glen’ and ‘Winter Landscape’ were two of my personal highlights from the Scottish National Gallery. But there is so much to see and appreciate. If you’re a Post-Impressionist fan, head for Van Gogh, Seurat, and Cezanne. For true Impressionism, the Monet and Pissaro paintings will keep you satisfied. There are examples of Pre-Raphaelite works, Early Renaissance masterpieces, awe-inspiring French landscapes… the list goes on.
I found it hard to give this gallery a rating out of ten because the pros and cons are so extreme. I eventually settled on a (9)/10, to reflect its massive potential, and how great the gallery will soon be. However, in its current state, it is more of a 6/10.
Despite its flaws, the Scottish National Gallery is exceptional, and I was astounded by the quality of the collection. The gallery is currently undertaking major renovation works, which will create a brighter and fresher space to showcase their world class collection. I highly recommend a visit; when the renovations are complete in early 2021 this will be one of the finest art galleries not only in the UK, but in the world. Start getting excited, and find out more about the gallery’s new look here!