The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is one of Edinburgh’s most remarkable and distinctive buildings – sitting proudly on the city’s skyline; it celebrates the history of Scotland and the Scots who have inspired and changed the world. The decoration of the building, both inside and out was carefully planned to form part of the visitors experience to the gallery, part of the architect's vision of building ‘a shrine for Scotland’s national portraits'
The Great Hall lies in the centre of the gallery, and it introduces the visitor to key figures and events in the history of Scotland through its elaborate decoration. The decoration was part of the original design for the building; a condition set out by its key donor, John Ritchie Findlay.
At the time the gallery was being built, fresco and mural decoration were fashionable for public buildings in Britain, with commissions for undertaken by notable Scottish artists such as Phoebe Anna Traquair, William Dyce and John Duncan. This technique was also selected for the Great Hall and in 1897, the board appointed William Brassey Hole, an artist who specialised in historical painting, particularly of Scottish subjects to undertake the project. Meticulous and serious-minded; he went on a study tour through Northern Italy and France to investigate fresco techniques to establish what the best approach and techniques would be to decorate this space. The end result, which can still be viewed by visitors today was created in three phases.
Around the first-floor balustrade, a processional frieze against a rippled, gold backdrop shows 155 figures from Scottish history. They march around the hall in reverse chronological order, from the nineteenth century through to Stone Age man. It includes royalty, military, religious and political figures as well as explorers, inventors, poets and artists all from Scotland’s past. The procession starts with the author and historian Thomas Carlyle, who played a significant role in the establishment of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Over half of the figures on the frieze are based upon portraits which are considered accurate likenesses and the costumes of each figure are in keeping with the time in which they lived. The names of each person in the frieze are also clearly painted above their heads.
The frieze was painted using a spirit fresco technique, where the paint was applied onto a wax primed plaster lining. The designs for each figure were then painted in position, based upon enlargements from cartoons and studies prepared by Hole in the studio. Many of these designs are now in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
You can see images of the entire frieze below, running counter-clockwise from Carlye all the way to the Stone age.