Display

The Library & Print Room

Open daily, 10am-5pm

This room will be closed between Tuesday 10 January and Thursday 12 January 2023

About

This spectacular room at the heart of the Portrait Gallery houses a wealth of research resources on Scottish portraiture. The displays in the Library explore some surprising types of portraiture, from the intensely personal to the pseudoscientific.

The Library displays show artistic experimentations with portraiture from the 17th century to contemporary times. They explore portraiture as a means of capturing someone’s likeness for sentimental or ‘scientific’ reasons. Viewed together, they can also be considered as creative forms of the photographic portrait before its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century. The Library’s books mirror the Portrait Gallery’s collection of artworks and past exhibitions, capturing Scottish identity through central themes of biography, history and photography. The Library also houses the personal library of American documentary photographer Eve Arnold gifted by her family to the National Galleries of Scotland. 

The Library provides a space for all visitors to pause on your way round the Gallery, browse selected books and debate your interpretations of the various portraiture forms on display.

Visit the Library and Print Room for research

The Library

When the Scottish National Portrait Gallery opened in 1889 as the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery, it shared the building with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The architect, Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, designed a south-east facing room on the second floor for the Antiquaries’ Library.

Robert Shillinglaw & Son of Edinburgh made the fittings and in 1891, the Library opened its doors to Society members. This remained the case for over a century until 1998, when the opening of a new building for the National Museum of Scotland created space for the Society and the Museum of Antiquities to move to new premises.

The 2011 refurbishment of the Portrait Gallery reinstated Rowand Anderson’s original vision of a series of top-lit galleries on the top floor. The Library was meticulously reinstalled at the heart of the Gallery on the first floor and opened to the public.

Portrait Miniatures

This open-drawer display provides an overview of the development of the miniature from the second half of the 16th century onwards. There are examples by Nicholas Hilliard and Richard Cosway, a self-portrait by Sarah Biffin and an imaginary twenty-first century character created by the artist Moyna Flannigan.

Portrait Medallions

The portrait medallions on display are all the work of portrait-modeller James Tassie. The sitters are eminent Scots representing high society in the 18th century. Their profiles were cast using an innovative, glass-like white paste pioneered by Tassie and Irish physician Dr Henry Quin (1718-1791). The National Galleries of Scotland holds the largest collection of works by James Tassie anywhere in the world.

Life and Death Masks

The masks on display are part of the collection used by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society that was founded in 1820 by Edinburgh lawyer George Combe (1788-1858) and his brother Andrew Combe (1797-1847).

Highly fashionable in the nineteenth century, phrenology claimed that personality traits, such as genius or predisposition to criminality, could be mapped by measuring a person’s skull. The scientific validity of this approach has since been debunked.

When the Phrenological Museum closed its doors in 1886, the collection was transferred to the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh from which these examples are on loan.

Portrait Busts

The central display presents portrait busts of Scottish sitters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sculpted in marble, bronze and ceramic. Portrait busts were first displayed as symbols of learning in the libraries of eighteenth-century private houses and educational institutions, then as ornamental objects in nineteenth-century public settings. Today, it is commonplace to find portrait busts in galleries and museums including several more artworks on display throughout the Gallery.

Event highlights

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Event accessibility

Display accessibility

  • Wheelchair access
Accessibility

Gallery facilities

  • Information desk
  • Wifi
  • Wheelchair access
  • Wheelchairs available
  • Lockers (£1/£2)
  • Baby changing facilities
  • Buggy park
  • Seating throughout
  • Bike rack
  • Accessible toilets for gallery visitors
  • Toilets for gallery visitors
  • Café
Getting here

Getting here

Located in the city centre on Queen Street, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is easy to access.

Venue map
  • Open daily, 10am-5pm
1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD

Research in the Library and Print Room at the Portrait Gallery

Research in the Library and Print Room at the Portrait Gallery

The Library provides access to resources relating to portraiture and Scottish history. The Print Room houses over 50,000 works of art on paper, including the Photography Collection, and a notable collection of portrait miniatures.

Our Friends

Our Friends

Friends of the Galleries get free unlimited entry to all exhibitions, and enjoy a wide range of exclusive benefits including early exhibition access, special events and 10% discount in our cafes.

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