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.