national portrait collection

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On July 15th 1889 National Portrait Gallery for Scotland opened in Edinburgh.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is home to Scotland’s national collection of portraits and currently also houses the National Photography Collection. Its origins can be traced to one enthusiastic collector, the mildly eccentric David, 11th Earl of Buchan. His collection of portraits of famous Scots, assembled in the late eighteenth century, formed the foundation of the national portrait collection in its first conception.

It was the philanthropy of a local newspaper owner that allowed the present Gallery to open its doors to the public in 1889. John Ritchie Findlay, the chief proprietor of The Scotsman, not only paid for the construction and an endowment, but he also masterminded the building that was to house the collection. He employed the architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, who had previously won the competition for designing the Edinburgh Medical Schools.Rowand Anderson created a modern purpose-designed art gallery to rival the most advanced at the time in Europe and America. At the same time, he wanted his building to be a shrine for Scotland’s heroes. The extensive decoration scheme, both external and internal, was designed with this idea in mind and is now an essential part of the visitor’s experience.

A distinctive landmark on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a grand, neo-gothic building in red sandstone. The north- and east-facing sides feature an elaborate scheme of decorative sculptures. Poets, monarchs and statesmen watch over Queen Street and North St Andrew Street, while William Wallace and Robert the Bruce guard the entrance.

Once inside the building, the Main Hall proves a breathtaking introduction to Scottish history. Along the first-floor balustrade runs a processional or pageant frieze that depicts many famous Scots in reverse chronological order. Starting with Thomas Carlyle, it was designed as a ‘visual encyclopaedia’ and includes figures such as David Livingstone, James Watt, Robert Burns, Adam Smith, David Hume, the Stuart monarchs, Robert the Bruce and Saint Ninian. The artist, William Hole, also painted a series of large-scale murals on the first floor. Like the frieze, these paintings of scenes from Scottish history are as much a part of the fabric of the building as the memorial to its founder, John Ritchie Findlay, on the ground floor. His was the first contemporary portrait to be commissioned for the Gallery

To this day, the Gallery continues to collect works that are portraits of Scots, though not necessarily made by Scots. It aims to add portraits of those missing in the collection, as well as to bring the collection up to date. Since 1982 there has been a policy of commissioning portraits of living Scots by contemporary artists. If you’ve never been please add it to your list of things to do, it is a great place, and free! There is a shop selling memorabilia and a cafeteria for you to relax and have a coffee and bite to eat.

Around 1918, Edward Hopper made an etching in which he portrayed himself wearing a hat. Self-Portrait preserves the pose of this earlier image, while his heavier features and laugh lines suggest the effects of time’s passage. Dressed in a suit and tie, Hopper gives no indication of his profession; indeed, he appears as the antithesis of the stereotypical bohemian artist. Though the interior space he occupies is nondescript, his hat suggests a moment of transition—that he is on his way somewhere else. Like so many of the people he portrayed on trains and in hotels and waiting rooms, Hopper looks as if he has been captured in a contemplative, in-between moment, engaged in a scene that hints at narrative possibilities but remains mysterious.

Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Self Portrait, 1925–30. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8 × 20 3/8 in. (64.5 × 51.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1165 © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum, NY

Unknown, ‘Marianne Egan and her children, Gerturde Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac’, 1857, British, in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, Australia

This portrait remains the only image of any of the lost victims of The Dunbar Tragedy, in which the Dunbar wrecked off of the coast of New South Wales before reaching Sydney harbour. Of the 122 aboard, only one crewman survived, managing to stay out of the choppy waters for two days until his rescue. Many families lost some -or all - of their members, and to this day it remains the worst maritime tragedy in Sydney’s history. 

Marianne (middle) herself was Sydney-born and raised, the daughter of a pardoned convict; who earned his pardon by avoiding another maritime disaster, the wrecking of the Guardian, in 1789. She was married to Henry St John Cahuac, a farmer, in 1834. They would have two children who lived beyond infancy, Henry (right) and Gertrude (left). At her husband’s death in 1841, having fallen off of his horse, she returned to Sydney and married Daniel Egan, ensuring the financial health of her children and herself, having had their father die at ages 4 and 2 respectively. 

After the disaster of the Dunbar, Daniel Egan would charter a ship, the Black Swan, along with a relative of the Waller family (of which the entire eight-person family were lost) to search for survivors, to no avail. 

The portrait itself was not completed at the time of the family’s departure, and so was sent later on a different ship a few months later. The portrait remained with descendants of Marianne’s sister, Elizabeth, until its display at the 150th anniversary of the Dunbar disaster, and it was acquired by the NPG in 2014. 

Vivien Leigh having her portrait painted by David Jagger, 27 September 1941. Keystone Press Agency Ltd. Bromide print. Photographs Collection, National Portrait Gallery.

This photograph is staged to announce the finished portrait; Jagger is given his identity by the paintbrush and his gaze, while the viewer is acknowledged by Leigh and her portrait simultaneously. The work combines theatricality and the attentive female gaze, alluding to a progressive period in which refined women confronted the viewer.

Marie Anne De La Tour d'Auvergne, née Mancini, Duchesse de Bouillon

by Benedetto Gennari the younger

Date painted: c.1672–1673

Oil on canvas, 97.8 x 83.8 cm

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles James Fox

by Karl Anton Hickel

Date painted: 1794

Oil on canvas, 132.1 x 113 cm

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London

Whig statesman and opponent of Pitt the younger. Reckless in politics as at the gaming tables, Fox held office briefly as a Tory under Lord North but soon switched sides leading the opposition through a long political life.

He championed the French revolutionary cause, America, Ireland, reform and George, Prince of Wales. A supporter of the revolutionary cause in France, his credibility was diminished from 1792 by the excesses of the French revolutionaries.In his younger days, Fox had been identified with the ‘Macaroni’ fashions of the 1760s and 1770s, characterised by ostentatious dress and wigs. By the early 1780s, the trend for male dress was towards a more sober, informal style. One of the first to initiate this change, Fox began to appear in public unshaven, unpowdered and in the blue coat and breeches of the American revolutionaries. This style soon became a mark of Whig support and of Radical politics.