Scottish National Portrait Gallery - History

History

The founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1780), David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, formed a collection of Scottish portraits in the late 18th century, much of which is now in the museum. In the 19th century, the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle was among those calling for a Scottish equivalent of the very successful National Portrait Gallery, London, established in 1856, but the government in London refused to fund the venture. Eventually John Ritchie Findlay stepped in and paid for the entire building, costing £50,000.

The museum was established in 1882, before its new building was completed. The London National Portrait Gallery was the first such separate museum in the world, however it did not move into its current purpose-built building until 1896, making the Edinburgh gallery the first in the world to be specially built as a portrait gallery. Special national portrait galleries remain a distinct Anglophone speciality, with the other more recent examples in Washington DC (1968), Canberra, Australia (1998), and Ottawa, Canada (2001) not so far copied in other countries. The famous collection of portraits housed in the Vasari Corridor in Florence remains only accessible to the public on a limited basis.

The building was opened in 1889, and compensated for the lack of contemporary portraits of medieval Scots by including several statues on the exterior, and in the main entrance hall a large mural processional frieze of notable Scots, from Saint Ninian to Robert Burns. These were added over the years after the opening, with the sculptures by William Birnie Rhind added in the 1890s and William Hole painting the entrance hall frieze in 1898, and adding further large mural narrative scenes on the 1st floor later. The building is in red sandstone from Corsehill from Dumfriesshire, with a combination of Arts and Crafts and 13th-century Gothic influences, and drawing on the Doges Palace in Venice for its treatment of a rectangular Gothic palace.

Over the years new facilities such as a shop and café were added in a piecemeal fashion, and the galleries rearranged and remodelled, generally reducing the clarity of the layout of the building, and often the ceiling height, as well as blocking off many windows. The building was shared with the National Museum of Antiquities, now the Museum of Scotland, until they moved to a new building in 2009, at which point the long-planned refurbishment of the Portrait Gallery could begin, with funding from the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, amongst others. The work generally restores the gallery spaces to their original layout, with areas set aside for education, the shop & café, and a new glass lift—greatly improving access for disabled visitors. In total the Portrait Gallery has 60% more gallery space after the changes, and at the reopening displayed 849 works, of which 480 were by Scots. The cost of the refurbishment was £17.6 million. The entire building comprises 5672 Sq. metres, and is a listed building in Category A. Administratively, the museum comes under National Galleries of Scotland, and shares their website amongst other facilities.

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