The façade of the recently reopened National Portrait Gallery on Edinburgh’s Queen Street could hardly be more opulent. It speaks of an era of massive prosperity and the fact that, at least occasionally, those who benefited from that prosperity had a penchant for overdone civic pride.
Essentially this structure is a massive pop-up version of a Walter Scott novel – the grandees of Scotland’s medieval estates and Victorian heroes are arrayed in garish colours and poses. It is nothing short of a basilica to the Romantic mind and its favoured subject – narrative history.
You cannot help but ask what the gallery’s main benefactor, owner of The Scotsman John Ritchie Findlay, would make of its new contents – of the images of Pakistani families celebrating their dual identity or the portraits of celebrated communists. Nor would Ritchie and his industrialist friends be alone in finding something incongruous about placing Ken Currie’s Three Oncologists just around the corner from a vast and vastly inaccurate mural of a medieval battle. Although Ritchie’s take on his creation is now frozen in a stained glass window over a stairwell, his legacy remains a profound one.
It is perfectly understandable, and perhaps healthy, to disassociate the realities of modern Scotland from its sometimes pantomime cultural inheritance – to cringe and feel all the more provincial – perhaps this was all an extremely far-sighted ploy on the part of The Scotsman, and this gaudy fairytale gallery is indeed just a bastion of cultural small mindedness.
Yet this is exactly why this old space with its new way of telling the story of Scotland is so important. The point at which we are embarrassed by such imagery, and its more recent Hollywood incarnations, is the point at which we pliantly accept Romanticism as the only way to interpret the past. The paintings, novels and films which draw on the past do not document it, they interpret it, and only really say anything of interest about the times in which they were produced, not those which they seek to portray.
Today, under the roof of this red-brick building, we have countless angles from which to weave a narrative thread about Scotland – be it as Renaissance monarchy, home of the enlightenment, or through the lives of its ordinary men and women – the richness of the fabric is developed room by room. At the same time we can look up at the Byzantine icons of Victorian civic pride for what they are – a dated attempt to tell a fascinating and varied story.
At the its most fundamental level a nation is a story. It is a set of points in a narrative that a group of people cleave to and call their own. Ultimately, it is the manner in which the story is told that makes the difference. The fact that we have this building (which was the first of its kind in the world) and the ability to create it, should fill every open-minded, progressive Scot with confidence. There is also no English equivalent, even though Sir Walter was equally happy to colour in the English history book. Rather, those south of the border have to content themselves with a National Portrait Gallery dedicated to figures from a chimerical ‘British’ past.
The confidence to tell a story, with both the high and low points making the final cut, is the best way to gesture, with all the confidence of experience, about what is to come. With regards to the constitutional future of this land a new voice is clearly emerging in an increasingly unified manner. Such national unity is gestured to by the coats of arms of Scotland’s ancients cities that sit above the gilded queue of famous Scots in the gallery’s entrance hall frieze. If indeed this building is a slightly garish secular temple it serves as a profound built example of French philosopher Ernest Renan’s famous remark on national consciousness, ‘of all the cults, that of the ancestors is the most valid, for they have made us who we are’.