New Scottish Galleries: a redevelopment that puts aesthetics ahead of socio-political matters

New Scottish Galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland
New Scottish Galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland - Campbell Donaldson, Ralia Media

Inside a double-height gallery newly excavated beneath Edinburgh’s Mound, a Dandie Dinmont terrier, depicted, with an upright tail, in a late-19th-century oil painting, is facing down The Monarch of the Glen (c. 1851), Edwin Landseer’s famous (and famously ripped-off) canvas of a stag stalking the Scottish Highlands. You’d never call it a fair fight, in part because the former is such a hideous picture, at least according to John Leighton, the outgoing director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, whom I overheard talking about it recently, sotto voce.

Yet, to honour the terms of a 20th-century bequest that, over the years, has been used to augment the first-rate collection of Old Masters on display upstairs, the likeness of Callum, as this doughty, diminutive pet was called, must be hung conspicuously in perpetuity. And his latest kennel, as it were, is this imposing room at the National, at one end of a suite of new galleries showcasing Scottish art that will open next Saturday, following a £38.6 million redevelopment.

Expanding the footprint of an asbestos-ridden addition built during the 1970s, the galleries now extend, podium-like, beneath the National’s 19th-century neoclassical edifice, a stone’s throw from the Royal Scottish Academy. Clad in a new sandstone façade, they may be accessed via an inviting entrance overlooking East Princes Street Gardens, completed in 2019 – though visitors who still arrive at the threshold atop the Mound can walk continuously from Sandro Botticelli’s tender, tempera vision of a solicitous Virgin watching over the Christ Child asleep in a bower, upstairs in Room 16, to, say, the Glasgow Boys’ decorative visions of apple-cheeked rustics amid brassicas, down below. A new terrazzo staircase, with bronze handrails, links both floors – although, somewhat confusingly, older Caledonian favourites, such as Henry Raeburn’s quizzical Skating Minister (c. 1795), remain on the upper level, because the new, below-stairs galleries house Scottish art made between 1800 and 1945.

Still, the development elegantly reconfigures what Leighton rightly calls a “complex” site, and the National’s Scottish pictures, which previously appeared so cramped, now have space and light, in a fit-for-purpose home with large windows offering vistas of the Old and New Towns, next to which views of the city, by Alexander Nasmyth, have been neatly hung.

Unexpectedly, because it signals that the starting point (from this end at least) is modern art, visitors arriving from the gardens encounter a Matissean still life featuring a pair of red slippers by Anne Redpath, which hangs on one side of an internal window like something in a Cork Street display; it proves a while before you subsequently come across anything recognisably “Scottish”, such as a view of heather-covered hills or a distinctive rock formation on Skye.

New Scottish Galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland
New Scottish Galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland - Campbell Donaldson, Ralia Media

Indeed, the question of Scottish art’s “local” or “international” character isn’t convincingly answered by the labels, which sometimes betray a sort of provincial cringe by submissively relating Scottish pictures to art-historical movements that originated elsewhere. Over the years, lots of artists north of the border have worked in avant-garde styles invented in far-off climes, sprinkling them over their subjects as if they were fairy dust.

Yet, to its credit, the rehang refrains from incessant politicising in the manner of Tate Britain’s misguided redisplay earlier this year. Yes, there’s a preference for promoting art by women; sure, you could quibble with several of the curators’ themes. Silly paintings, such as John Duncan’s Angus Og (1908), are presented reverentially.

But, in general, there’s something almost quaint, and certainly pleasing, about the interpretation, which champions aesthetic concerns over socio-political matters. Down south, in the metropolis, art-historical remarks about compositional subtleties are considered retrograde. Here, though, they serve to, as the project’s co-director, Patricia Allerston, puts it, “make a case for historic art”. It’s one I found persuasive.

From Sept 30;