Ten things you might not know about the Scottish National Gallery

As the Scottish National Gallery undergoes an ambitious transformation to create brand new galleries dedicated to Scottish art, we bring you ten surprising facts about the galleries that you might not know.

William Donaldson Clark The National Gallery and Royal Institution, with Edinburgh Castle in the background, seen from Princes Street Gardens Unknown

1. The original aim of the galleries was to make art accessible to all

When the Royal Scottish Academy building was first opened on the Mound in 1828, and originally known as the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, the aim was to make art available for study and for the public to view. With the nineteenth century being a period of increased social reform and social improvement, the Royal Academy in London even introduced ticket concessions and later opening hours so working people would have the chance to view art.

The original founders of the institution seemed to agree with what we know now - that art can transform lives by supporting health and wellbeing, expression of thoughts and social skills. 

2. An early plan for the Mound featured underground baths

You might be right in thinking that the condensation from swimming baths would not work well in an art gallery, but an 1850 plan for the Mound incorporated underground baths and plunge pools beneath the National Gallery buildings.

You can see the plans here. The drawing notes that the 'Plan of Baths immediately below the National Gallery & Terrace' and is signed: 'Rob. F. Gourlay, Sunnyside Cottage, Montrose, March 28, 1850'.

Claude Monet A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight About 1864

3. Over the last year, almost 350 of our works have been displayed around the world.

As we undergo a major redevelopment at the Scottish National Gallery, many of our works of art have gone on loan, so that they can continue to be seen by audiences around the world.

At Duff House, an historic house and arts centre managed by Historic Environment Scotland, 156 objects from our permanent collection are displayed in the house on long-term loan. You can also see Monet's A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight on display at Duff House until March 2020. 

Over the past year from April 2018 to April 2019, the National Galleries of Scotland as a whole lent 346 works to exhibitions at seventy venues around to world, including in Tokyo, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna.

Sir Edwin Landseer The Monarch of the Glen About 1851

4. The Scottish National Gallery’s most searched for work of art on the website is…

This might not be surprising, but the most searched for Scottish National Gallery artwork on our website is The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edward Landseer (about 1851).

People are also visiting our site to find out more about our second most popular work, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent (1892), followed by Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), by Paul Gauguin (1888), Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister (about 1795), and in fifth place, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Diego Velázquez (1618).

5. We sell around 3,500 postcards from the Gallery Shop each month.

By far the most popular postcards sold in our shop are The Skating Minister, Lady Agnew and Monarch of the Glen.  These well-loved paintings can also be found on tote bags, mugs, cushions, and even Christmas tree decorations.

A new and expanded Gallery Shop, accessed through the Gardens Entrance, opened at the beginning of October. As well as selling the works of local makers, we also have a large bookshop within our gallery shop, where the top-selling publications are our Companion Guides.

6. Uncovering secrets with an infrared camera

The National Galleries of Scotland’s conservation department has a state-of-the art infrared camera which allows them to delve underneath the layers of a painting, so they can see if the artist made any initial pencil-work and outlines. Infrared radiation is often used to ‘see through’ paint layers that are impenetrable to the human eye.

The conservation team are busy preparing fantastic works of art from the Scottish collection which will be displayed in the new galleries, such as Sir James Guthrie’s Oban, and this infrared technology allows them to discover new stories and secrets within some of these works.  

Leonardo da Vinci Studies of a Dog's Paw About 1490 - 1495

7. As well as paintings, we also have an extensive prints and drawings collection

As part of the Prints and Drawings Collection, which includes over 34,000 works on paper, we have the only drawing by Leonardo da Vinci in a public collection in Scotland.  

The print room is now located at the Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), and it is still very much available for booking an appointment.

The collection famously includes 38 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner, which were bequeathed by Henry Vaughan in 1900. These works are exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery every January, in accordance with Vaughan’s wishes and when they are not on display they can be viewed by appointment in our Print Room.

H.E.M. Wilkie The Interior of the National Gallery of Scotland 1890

8. The current gallery colour-scheme reflects the original design

In the 1930s, Orcadian-born artist Stanley Cursiter, who was then the director of the galleries, redesigned the interior of the Scottish National Gallery to fit with the aesthetics of the day. However, the original jewel-toned décor of the National Gallery was restored at the end of the 1980s to evoke how it originally looked.

John Emms Callum Dated 1895

9. A little dog is responsible for some of the most popular paintings in the collection

Lady Agnew is one of the most popular paintings in the collection, and it was one of a number of important works purchased thanks to the 1919 bequest of James Cowan Smith.  He was very fond of his dogs, and one of the stipulations in his bequest was that a portrait of his Dandie Dinmont, Callum, painted by John Emms, should always be hung in the Scottish National Gallery.

10. Our restaurant uses honey from beehives in the grounds of Modern One

The Scottish Cafe & Restaurant, which is located on the Gardens Level of the Scottish National Gallery, recently reopened following a complete make-over. Their menu showcases the very best seasonal and local Scottish produce. The honey featured comes from Contini’s hives located in the gardens of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

The Contini’s own kitchen garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh also supplies the restaurant with daily harvests of edible flowers, herbs, salad leaves and berries.

Celebrating Scotland’s Art: The Scottish National Gallery Project

The Scottish National Gallery project will create a suite of exhibition spaces that will be directly accessible from the adjoining Princes Street Gardens, and provide a light-filled, new home for the nation’s collection of Scottish art, raising its profile for visitors from all over the world.

14 November 2019