ARTYFACTS: Scottish National Portrait Gallery – odd experience

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Scottish National Portrait Gallery – odd experience

Revamped at a considerable cost, I was expecting more. This is a second-rate collection, low on both quality and quantity.  For a start, the building is just too big for the collection. Witness the huge, empty education rooms. A red sandstone, late-Victorian, Gothic building, it sets grandiose expectations for what lies within. Its Gothic revival partner in crime is the earlier Scott Monument on Prince’s Street and that’s the real clue. Scott’s reinvention of Scotland after George IVs visit in 1822 led to an explosion of faux-Scottishness and romanticised history from which Scotland has never recovered. In fact, recent nationalism seems to have given these Victorian inventions a new and even gaudier second life.
Step inside and you get an atrium with a frieze that show Scots from the stone age to the twentieth century. But the works themselves are a disappointment, of historical rather than aesthetic interest. There’s few portraits with even a glint of inner thought or character. The two failed Pretenders get big billing but their ill-fated risings in 1715 and 1745 were catastrophes. Unable to raise enough support beyond a few feudal clans, their sojourns ended in the last battle to be fought on British soil, the bloody massacre at Culloden, where more Scots fought against than for their cause. From the Normans onwards Scottish history is a series of very occasional victories but mostly defeats. We’ve fought far more battles for others and against our own, than for any serious political cause.
To be fair there is an attempt to look at Scottish dress realistically through the eyes of the fabricated Sobieski Stuarts, albeit shoved in a cupboard and drawers (their inventions are exposed in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland). I’d love to see an exhibition titled ‘The Invention of Scotland’ where invented Victorian romanticism is exposed but in this political climate that would be impossible.
Hume out of reach
The Raeburn portraits also bring some sense of worth to an otherwise second rate set of paintings. Yet the two well-known Hume paintings and Rousseau are set above inferior works, hung too high and badly lit. Scotland has long preferred pretender kings and queens and third rate aristocrats to its true talent. Many Scots of international renown are missing. There’s no John Paul Jones, Carnegie or Alexander Graham Bell.
National Portrait Gallery (London)
Curiously there are more and better portraits of Scots in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Their Mary Queen of Scots, Stuarts, Adam, Watt, Macadam, Ramsay (better than anything in the Scottish gallery) Miller, Boswell (Reynolds), Flora Macdonald etc. is a bigger and better selection.
We should perhaps admit that Scotland is peripheral, if not irrelevant in European art. It’s impoverished past then post-Reformation revulsion of imagery, limited both commissions and artistic ambition. So these paintings have curiosity, rather than aesthetic value. However, if you look through the lens of realism and not romanticism, and see the building and these images as part of propaganda campaigns, you can read the real, as opposed to imaginary, Scotland.


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