Wake up after a night full of tartan-coloured dreams to find that I’m still in Edinburgh, so decide to go and take a look at the Scottish National Gallery. If I had to choose one word to sum up this place then I think it would have to be ‘quirky’ which, in this particular instance, is not meant to be sneering or derogatory in any way but should be taken as something of a compliment. The collection here fills about twenty medium-sized rooms and covers the standard four centuries of Classical European art that starts off around the close of the 15th century. In other words, it goes from the ending of the Medieval to the stirrings of the Modern – from the Italian Renaissance all the way through to the French Impressionists. As is to be expected, the walls are full of all the usual scenes of sex and violence, piety and veniality that provided the subject matter for the old masters to work with. But what makes the collection here just that little bit more interesting is that dotted throughout the displays are several little cultural oddities and curiosities, not least the Correggio in the room dealing with the Venetian Renaissance that opens proceedings. What turns An Allegory of Virtue from an otherwise fairly typical scene of a pretty young woman about to receive the crown confirming her as the personification of honour, nobility, integrity and so forth, is that she is not just naked but almost completely absent. Unlike the colourful companions that surround her, as they perform their symbolic roles designed to accentuate all the various aspects of her good character, the actual focus of everyone’s attention has been left very much unfinished. Evidently the artist got interrupted at the very point when he was about to complete the work, leaving the central figure silhouetted like the missing piece if a jigsaw. And yet, rather than detracting from the painting’s appeal, the few strokes of the simple sketch that delineates the outlines of the missing maiden perhaps makes the viewer look even harder while also revealing fascinating aspects of the painter’s technique.
Elsewhere in the room are a more conventional, though no less impressive, trio of Titians: a dramatic Nativity; a rather chubby Venus emerging from the waves; and then The Three Ages of Man. This salutary lesson starts with a sleeping child watched over by a protective angel; is followed by a bearded youth engaging with an attractive young flautist; and finally concludes with a lonely old man cradling a pair of skulls. How many people must have gazed at this painting over the centuries and considered the position of their own coordinates on life’s inevitable, fateful trajectory? And then what better way to banish those discomforting thought of morbidity than turning to look in on The Feast of the Gods, an al fresco party that seems like it’s just about to get out of hand with some pretty poor postprandial pranks. But then what do you expect if you invite someone along called Priapus? Again, this forerunner to Animal House is another example of one of the Gallery’s pick of paintings that carry intriguing little twists, since the version here is not the Bellini original, which currently resides in Washington, but a very skilful copy painted a century later by the almost equally talented Nicholas Poussin. There are other more typical examples of the Frenchman’s work in a special room here devoted to his Seven Sacraments which celebrates a full run of Christian iconographical ceremonies from baptism to last rites. It’s unquestionably an impressive body of work although, at least to my eyes, it seem to be suffering from some pigmental problems with the artist’s trademark rusty red patina darkening everything into shadows that makes it quite difficult to follow the details.
On a definitely brighter note Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary provides the next example of the unusual, or maybe that should be unique. It’s not just that this is the Dutchman’s only surviving example of a religious work but it’s also massively larger than all his more familiar, jewel-like interiors where girls play on their virginals, concentrate on their lacemaking or just turn to smile at us and flash their pearl earrings. Apparently it’s one of his very early works and already it reveals some of the characteristic painterly techniques he perfected in his maturity. Ok, I’m bluffing. Before I read the label I’d never have picked this out as a Vermeer by just looking at the painting style although, on closer inspection, maybe some of the props he uses here look a bit familiar – I’m sure the carpet thrown casually over a chair and the loaf of crusty bread reappear in his later, more famous works.
If the Vermeer here is a bit of a wild card then the Rembrandt is almost the reverse of quirky. Many galleries, national and provincial, seem happy to stick the artist’s name on a label next to any picture of an old couple or a man with a spear, as long as it is murky enough and has a sufficient layer of mahogany veneer. But the floppy hat, the desperately sad, sunken eyes and the famous prominent proboscis on the face that returns our gaze here means that the self-portrait could hardly be a more convincing picture of the artist and his particularly troubled later life.
So, what else is good to look at in the collection? Well, there are quite a lot of real stunners: Rubens’ The Feast of Herod shows the moment when Salome lifts the lid off the silver serving platter and reveals the grisly dessert; while Velazquez offers up some rather more wholesome fare with his Old Woman Cooking Eggs; and Joshua Reynolds shows us a very sophisticated threesome with the delightful Ladies Waldegrave engaged in a serious session of heavy duty needlepoint.
And at this point, I’ve just got one final ground floor room to look at. I can see that there’s a nice chunky green Constable and an absurdly overblown bit of hyperbolic nonsense from Benjamin West, the full title of which – Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald – probably tells you all you need to know about the painting and more. But then in comes a teacher with a gaggle of little children and, in my experience, this means it’s time to cut one’s losses, give up trying to concentrate on the art and make a speedy exit, as the kids will soon start running about and making all kinds of unpleasant screeching noises. However – and I don’t know if this counts as quirky or not – to my immense surprise, and to the great credit of the Scottish educational system, all remains quiet as the children sit on the floor in a neat row and listen carefully to the teacher. Goodness only knows what she tells them about the ghastly West extravaganza that they’re all looking at but they remain stationary and silent as I pay my respects to the Constable and then head upstairs to check out the Impressionists.
If there’s an oddity here then it’s the Pissarro landscape which is painted in a very straightforward realist style rather than with his usual loose Impressionistic brushstrokes. Presumably it’s an early work but, either way, it confirms that he really was a very technically gifted all-rounder. Rather more familiar, though no less attractive, are the Degas ballet scene and the Monet cupcakes sitting in a field, more commonly described as Haystacks in the Snow. But the real stars here are from the Post-Impressionists, with a Cezanne sketch of his favourite Mt Sainte-Victoire and, rather more spectacularly, a strikingly colourful pair from Gauguin: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel and the Three Tahitians.
And then all that then remains to be seen is in the final subterranean rooms that hold the nation’s collection of Scottish Art. Amongst some pretty corny landscapes of lochs and mountains, and quaint genre studies of highland weddings and the like are some rather more interesting items. There is for instance Joseph Paton’s wonderful pairing showing first the Quarrel and then the Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, replete as it is with flying fairies imps and hobgoblins. Then, rather more down-to earth, are works from two of the so-called Glasgow Boys – A Hind’s Daughter by James Guthrie, that shows a young girl picking cabbages, and John Lavery’s Dutch Cocoa House revealing just how refined Glasgow society could be when out enjoying an afternoon drink in the 1880’s equivalent of a Starbucks or a Caffe Nero. There can, however, only be one picture with which to conclude my Scottish sojourn, and that’s the very epitome of quirkiness, Henry Raeburn’s famous Skating Minister.