New gallery spaces showcasing Scottish art to open in Edinburgh

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

A suite of new galleries built to present work by many of Scotland’s most famous artists, including the Glasgow Boys, Phoebe Anna Traquair and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, opens to the public this week.

For the first time, the galleries in Edinburgh will showcase significant pieces of Scottish art held by National Galleries Scotland in a single collection, after a much-delayed construction project that involved digging out new space beside the Mound in the city centre.

The works encompass delicate embroideries by Traquair, the pioneering photography of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and landscapes of Victorian Edinburgh, as well as Sir Edwin Landseer’s totemic portrait of a red stag, The Monarch of the Glen.

Sir John Leighton, the director general of National Galleries Scotland, said the new spaces were intended to allow the work to “pop off the walls” and to show the Scottish collections with “pride and ambition”.

Its curators have brought in works of art that have been spread across the National Galleries’ various collections, held in storage and unseen for decades, or hung in other institutions, integrating them for the first time into a coherent collection.

A sculpture in a glass case in front of paintings in gallery spaces stretching into the distance
The new galleries replace a 1970s-era network of basement rooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Those works include the largest piece on display, a sombre painting by Robert Scott Lauder called Christ Teacheth Humility, completed in 1847 for a competition to make work for the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, which were being rebuilt after the fire of 1834.

Too large to be shown in the previous Scottish rooms, its canvas had been taken out and rolled up, before being lent to a Catholic care home. The national gallery’s framers found and restored its original gilt frame, which measures 2.55 by 3.7 metres (8.4ft by 12.1ft), for its display in the new spaces.

Patricia Allerston, the chief curator for the new galleries, which cover work from 1800 to 1945, said they had also focused deliberately on finding and presenting art by women. “As we go back in time, that is more challenging,” she said.

Along with a bay dedicated to Traquair, other bays are devoted to the Glasgow Girls including Flora Macdonald Reid, with work by the sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald, the latter a watercolourist who married the designer and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Four figurative embroidery panels in a row on a gallery wall
Phoebe Anna Traquair’s embroidery The Progress of a Soul (1895-1902). Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Henry Raeburn’s famous pre-1800 painting of the Reverend Walker skating on Duddingston Loch remains in the main gallery upstairs.

In addition, the collection subtly explores significant themes in Scotland’s political history, including pieces not previously put on permanent display.

One small oil by William McTaggart from 1895 features a ship taking Highlanders to the US after their eviction in the clearances, and is paired with a larger painting by McTaggart on the arrival of the Celtic Christian saint Columba on Iona. Allerston noted that Victorian paintings on the clearances were rare.

A painting by Robert Herdman, held in an anteroom that links the new Scottish galleries in the basement to the main ground-floor galleries, depicts the death of a Covenanter, wounded during a violent Presbyterian revolt in the 1680s.

The most famous painting in the new galleries, Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, is the centrepiece in a room devoted to exaggerated, glamorised landscapes from the Highlands – a form that dominated Victorian perceptions of Scotland.

People walking outside a long building with the engraved name National Galleries of Scotland
The Scottish galleries project, announced in 2016, was originally expected to cost £16.8m but was hit by a number of setbacks. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The Scottish galleries, which will open to the public on 30 September, mark the completion of a long-running scheme to expand and integrate two neoclassical Greek revival buildings on the Mound – the National Gallery of Scotland and the neighbouring Royal Scottish Academy – into a single complex now known as the National.

The Scottish galleries element of the project was announced in 2016, scheduled to open in 2019 and originally priced at £16.8m. The first design, to replace a 1970s-era network of basement rooms by building out over three Victorian railway tunnels leading from Waverley station, was too risky and quickly abandoned.

The scaled-back project was then hit by other challenges: undocumented asbestos, damp and water ingress and layers of dense concrete; the first contractors, Interserve, collapsed; then Covid struck. The galleries eventually cost £38.6m, underpinned by £15.25m from the Scottish government.

Leighton, who is to retire soon after 17 years as director general, said he was delighted the new galleries had been opened, featuring full-length windows looking at the Scott Monument and Calton Hill, and replacing the dingy and badly lit spaces that had previously been there.

“Obviously, we’re sorry it has taken so long,” he said, but added: “Having overcome the obstacles, which at the time were challenging because you’re in a very challenging funding environment, in a way I think it feels almost sweeter for being hard won.”