The best way to get to know a place is to get to know it’s people. To do this in Edinburgh you can a) hang around in pubs, b) buy celebrity magazines, or c) visit a national portrait gallery. Scotland‘s National Portrait Gallery reopened on December 1st after a massive renovation that’s taken over two years. The main difference is that now they have the space to exhibit 60 % more of their 3,000 piece collection, much of which was previously in storage. In fact, you can do most of a – c above at the Portrait Gallery. They have a 16th century portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots – the mistress of scandal in her day – and they also have Susan Boyle – the UK cat-loving heroine famous for beginning a pop-chart-topping singing career at the age of around 50. I’m just not sure they’ll sell you a beer; actually, they probably will in the restaurant. Anyways, we’re there to look at the art.
With all this new space they’re able to give us some pretty impressive diversity. To kickstart it, they’ve got rooms themed around sport, science, romanticism, kilts, and a contemporary film installation about people who have gone missing. The portraits range in era from the historical paintings of Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, right through a huge photography collection, to new film and video work. They also got sculpture in the form of busts and death masks of some of Scotland’s worst criminals, displayed in the elegant Victorian Library. Perhaps the most notorious criminal bust is of ‘an English type’ – the Scots never miss an opportunity for a dig at their friendly foes across the border. But it’s not just what’s on the walls but the walls themselves that are interesting. This building was the first purpose built gallery and since the mid 1800s it did pretty well, but this renovation has opened up bigger, lighter spaces, turning storage and office space into public galleries and restoring the Central Hall with its elaborate friezes and frescoes.