Sometimes it is nice to find comfort in old friends- especially during difficult times. For me, I often seek rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation at museums, and, boy, Edinburgh excels in that arena. However, as of the writing of this article, all museums are currently closed in Edinburgh due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t visit them virtually. This week we journey to the Mound in Edinburgh and take a wee virtual visit to the Scottish National Gallery.
History, Architecture, and Creating a ‘National Gallery of Scotland’
The Scottish National Gallery is run by National Galleries Scotland who, on their website, describes themselves as an organisation that, “cares for, develops, researches and displays the national collection of Scottish and international art and, with a lively and innovative programme of activities, exhibitions, education and publications, aims to engage, inform and inspire the broadest possible public”. The Scottish National Gallery is housed in two buildings- the Royal Scottish Academy building and the National Gallery building. Let’s explore them both a bit more.
Both the Royal Scottish Academy building (originally known as the Royal Institution) and the National Gallery were designed by the famous Scottish architect, William Henry Playfair. Favouring the Greek Revival style in most of his work (including these two buildings), Playfair helped Edinburgh earn its nickname, ‘Athens of the North’. The Royal Scottish Academy building was first designed in 1822 with an addition completed by Playfair in 1835 and it epitomises this style as it looks like a Greek temple. Specifically, Playfair designed it in the Doric Order which we can see characterised in its massive but simple and austere columns and capitals.
There are few more points of interest that I would like to point out on the exterior of the Royal Scottish Academy Building. First, as a lifelong 'fan' of Ancient Egypt , I particularly love to admire the pair of sphinxes that is placed at each of the four corners of the roof; two pairs facing east (pictured below) and two pairs facing west. There is also a statue of Queen Victoria on top of the north pediment done by John Steell. Steell also did the statue of Sir Walter Scott for the Scott Monument.
The Royal Scottish Academy building is managed by National Galleries Scotland which also runs a variety of art programmes throughout the year. However, the other main ‘tenant’ of the building is the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture. Their historic connection to the building is important and a bit obvious as it is named after the Academy. According to the National Galleries Scotland website, “the ‘Scottish Academy’ was founded in 1826 by a group of eleven artists. It was created with the aim of creating an academy of fine arts instructing students at no charge, to present an annual exhibition open to all artists of merit and maintain a library devoted to the fine arts”. In 1835, the Academy was granted permission to lease space at the Royal Institution Building for their annual exhibition. Additionally, they received a Royal Charter in 1838 and that is why they are now known as the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). The RSA is still in existence and, according to their website, states it, “continues to evolve, electing new Members, exhibiting new work, developing its collections and supporting and promoting excellence in contemporary Scottish art and architecture”.
In the 1850s, the founding members of the RSA decided that they needed their own National Gallery and set out having one built. As I said above, the National Gallery building was also built in the Greek Revival architectural style. However, Playfair designed this building in the Ionic Order as illustrated in its slenderer columns that are characterised by the two scrolls (known as volutes) on its capital. You can see this in the entry way below. Once built, the Royal Scottish Academy moved into the National Gallery Building along with the National Gallery of Scotland (now the Scottish National Gallery).
National Galleries Scotland goes on to explain that in 1910, “it was decided that the RSA should be transferred back into the Royal Institution Building and be awarded permanent tenancy of office space and the right to hold its annual exhibition within the building. The building then became known as ‘The Royal Scottish Academy’. In return, the RSA gifted ninety-six paintings and sculptures and approximately two-thousand drawings to the National Gallery of Scotland and are still part of the national collection”. Thus, an important partnership was created that continues to this day. While the Royal Scottish Academy and National Gallery buildings were built as two separate buildings, they have been connected underground since 2004 and are now part of the Scottish National Gallery.
The Scottish National Gallery Project Renovations
Inclusivity is an important aspect for public spaces, and I am proud to say that the Scottish National Gallery Project is working towards this. National Galleries Scotland began a multi-year project whose first phase was completed in 2019. This included a refurbished shop and café- The Scottish Café and Restaurant (run by the renowned Contini family), as well as paths from East Princes Street Gardens to improve entrance access for those with mobility impairments, wheelchairs, and prams.
Construction on the project has been halted due to COVID-19. However, once it resumes, there is still much to be completed. According to National Galleries Scotland, this includes converting “areas originally built in the 1970s into the new suite of galleries, alongside newly created spaces”. Specifically, they are going to create improved spaces to better showcase their collection of Scottish art. Essentially, they are looking to make the Garden-level galleries more open and inviting. According to their concept art, this is going to be done in part using windows looking out on Princes Street Garden which will help provide more natural light and ‘connections’ to the outside environment.
Personally, I am quite excited about the proposed changes as I think it is crucial for the Scottish National Gallery to have a world-class space for Scottish art. The last update provided stated that work is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021. However, the recent halt in construction might change this. Be sure to check the Project Updates webpage for the latest information. Rest assured that we will do another post on all of the renovations once the Project is completed.
Visiting 'Old Friends'
There are thousands of works of art at the Scottish National Gallery done by renowned artists such as Monet, Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, Van Gogh, Turner, Ramsay, and Raeburn. These collections can currently be found in the National Gallery building. On this virtual tour, we are simply going to look at a few of my favourites (but know that this is just the smallest sample size of that list). So, without further ado, I would like to introduce you to a few of my ‘old friends’.
Perhaps one of the most famous paintings at the Scottish National Gallery is the Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch by Scottish artist, Sir Henry Raeburn. This whimsical painting is said to be of Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808) who was the minister of Canongate Kirk and a member of the Edinburgh Skating Society. Members of the Society would often go skating on Duddingston Loch which, interestingly, no longer freezes over in the winter (at least not enough for skating). It is a beautiful location for a walk and not far from the famous, Sheep Heid Inn.
The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer is another famous friend that holds residence at the Scottish National Gallery. This stunning stag fills the gallery space with a fantastic sense of majesty and grandeur- although he looks like he would be much more at home in his native Highlands. Whenever I visit the ‘Monarch’, it makes me long for a road trip up north to visit some of our favourite historical sites such as Urquhart Castle.
One painting I particularly enjoy is Niagara Falls, from the American Side by Frederic Edwin Church. Having been to Niagara Falls, this painting does an exquisite job at capturing the beauty, movement, and misting of the North American geological wonder. As many of you might know, Niagara Falls is on the border between the U.S. and Canada- both of which claim to have the ‘best view’ of the Falls. However, as we have both Canadian and American readers, and so as not to offend either side, I will be diplomatic and keep my favourite view to myself 😉.
For regular readers of this blog, it will probably not come as a surprise to find out our next guest on this tour. The painting is called, The Murder of David Rizzio by Sir William Allan. Rizzio was the personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots and we outline the infamous and horrific story of his death in our article on Mary at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Our next virtual tour stop at the Scottish National Gallery involves one of the most famous artists of all time and a bit of intrigue! Let’s stop and admire The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (about 1501) by none other than- Leonardo da Vinci! According to National Galleries Scotland, “there has been much debate regarding the extent of Leonardo's direct involvement in the painting, but it seems likely that the overall design, and the execution of the figures and the foreground rocks, are entirely his. The background landscape, on the other hand, is not characteristic of Leonardo, and was probably added or completed by another artist, possibly quite a bit later”. Despite this, there is quite an interesting journey that this painting took before it came to be at the Scottish National Gallery. However, you will have to read our article on Drumlanrig Castle to learn more on that fascinating tale.
We close our brief tour of the Scottish National Gallery with a visit to our long-term blog friend, Sir Walter Scott. This posthumous painting was done by the Scottish painter, Sir William Allan, who was also friends with Scott. Considering we have two beloved canine family and ‘staff’ members here at Wee Walking Tours, I thought it a perfect way to end our tour with this lovely painting as it portrays Scott’s two adorable terriers, Ginger and Spice. The landscape of the painting is of Scott’s treasured home, Abbotsford, which just happens to be one of my favourite articles I’ve written about him.
I hope you have enjoyed our trip to the Scottish National Gallery. As I mentioned in the intro to this post, the Gallery is currently closed due to COVID-19. However, there have been preliminary discussions by the Scottish Government about possibly opening museums on 15 July 2020. Of course, that could change depending on the course the virus takes between now and then. However, holding onto hope isn’t a bad idea in times like this. Please be sure to check the Scottish National Galley website for the most up-to-date information to help you plan your trip.
If you are looking for ways to virtually explore more galleries and museums in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland, please check out our articles on the following: The People’s Story Museum, The National Mining Museum, Museum of Childhood, The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Museum of Edinburgh, The East Asia Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland, The Anatomical Museum, and The Writers’ Museum.
I mentioned at the beginning that museums provide a nice, indoor location for me to escape the world. However, in a similar vein, I also want to highlight the Edinburgh Zoo as it is one of my all-time favourite outdoor spots in the city to relax and write. As a charity, I know that they are having a difficult time financially due to its closure because of the COVID-19 crisis. Like museums, they need our support more than ever right now. First, if you would like to take a wee virtual journey to the Zoo, please check out our previous article on it. After that, head over to their website to see how you can support them.
Lastly, thank you for letting me ‘geek’ out a bit in this article- I do not often get the chance to share my passion for art and architectural history gained during my university days. However, having access to art and beautiful public spaces is especially important to me- and the Wee Walking Tours family as a whole- and I will always advocate for them whenever I get the chance.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!