The Italian Job: Bringing Scots in Italy to the Portrait Gallery

by Lucinda Lax, Senior Curator, 03 March 2016

Dr Lucinda Lax is Senior Curator, Eighteenth-Century Collections, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where she is responsible for researching and presenting the Gallery’s outstanding collection of portraits between 1700 and 1830. She is currently curating a new exhibition, 'Scots in Italy: Artists and Adventurers'.

I have had an exciting – and nerve-wracking – week, watching the installation of a new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The theme is ‘Scots in Italy: Artists and Adventurers’, and it aims to bring to life the experiences of the numerous eighteenth-century Scottish travellers who pursued the unique cultural and professional opportunities offered by Italian life and art at that time.

I began preparing for the exhibition more than eighteenth months ago, by researching the theme in detail and working through the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland for potential exhibits.  After that, I had to design the ‘hang’ – the arrangement of pictures on the wall. I also decided that it was time for a bold new colour scheme for the gallery that would capture the glamour of Mediterranean travel as well as show off the rich tones of the eighteenth-century paintings that would feature in the display.

The gallery before redecoration
The gallery after redecoration

After all the anticipation, things are now finally coming together. The first stage was to completely clear the two central top floor galleries so that the decorators could come in. Thanks to their admirable efficiency the whole space was repainted in sumptuous deep blue in only two days.

With the redecoration complete, the Gallery’s art technicians could start bringing in their equipment and the paintings, sculptures and drawings that had been chosen all that time before. The highly skilled team started unpacking and hanging the works. One of the first to go up was the spectacular painting of Rome’s Palazzo del Re, the home of the exiled Stuart court and a centre for social life – and intrigue – for the many Scottish Jacobites in the city.

Paolo Monaldi; Pubalacci; Silvestri, 'Prince James receiving his son, Prince Henry, in front of the Palazzo del Re', after insta
Gavin Hamilton, 'Douglas Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton and 5th Duke of Brandon (1756 – 1799), with Dr John Moore (1730 – 1802),

I was also really looking forward to the arrival of Gavin Hamilton’s supremely stylish portrait of the 8th Duke of Hamilton. The painting is one of the finest in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, but hasn’t been on display for a number of years. The new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to put it on public view again.

But the most thrilling moment was undoubtedly the hanging of Pompeo Batoni’s monumental portrait of Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon. Batoni was eighteenth-century Rome’s leading portrait painter, and his depiction of Gordon is full of his characteristic combination of swagger and elegance.  It is the undoubted star of the show, but bringing the painting from its usual home in the Scottish National Gallery was quite a challenge.

The frame of Batoni’s portrait of the 4th Duke of Gordon awaiting reassembly
Replacing Batoni’s canvas in its frame

This was not only because the painting itself is on such an enormous scale, but because its frame is even bigger.  Weighing in at more than 120 kilograms, it’s one of the heaviest in the National Galleries’ collections. There were even concerns that it might prove too much for the Gallery wall. The solution was a specially constructed plinth to take the strain. Then, to move the frame to the Portrait Gallery, it had to broken down into four pieces and reassembled.

The painting was carefully placed back in its frame and raised up by the coordinated effort of our technicians.

1,2,3… and up it goes!
The final stage – attaching the picture to the wall

Yesterday afternoon, Batoni’s masterpiece was finally placed in position and fixed to the wall – so bringing the installation process to its final stages. All that remains to be done is to add the last few labels, make some adjustments to the lighting, and then a final clean up. 

You can imagine my feeling of relief to see everything completed and ready to open on schedule on Saturday. Time for the whole team to take a well-earned rest!

'Scots in Italy: Artists and Adventurerswill be on display in Galleries 5 and 6 of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 3rd March 2019.

The completed hang