How proud Scotland should be of its National Gallery on Edinburgh’s Mound. This handsome Greek Revival building by William Playfair is one of the most intimate of great world museums, thanks to Timothy Clifford’s splendid recreation of the original interiors. It contains works of art to rival any of the capitals of Europe.
Our party were shown round by Charles and Donald, two enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides. Enthusiasm is surely everything when doing this sometimes thankless task, and our two guides managed to impress us with short talks on the Bernini bust of Cardinal del Pozzo and Poussin’s Cycle of the Seven Sacraments.
But, of course, the thrill of discovery does not end there and room after room revealed Van Dycks, Rembrandts, a swathe of Scottish paintings and the magnificent Leonardo de Vinci, The Virgin of the Woolwinder, recovered by the Dukes of Buccleuch after being stolen from Drumlanrig, and now on loan to the gallery.
Today out of the city to visit two of Scotland’s greatest houses, Hopetoun and Dalmeny. In South Queensferry, we passed under the red pylons of Forth Railway Bridge, standing majestic and proud besides its puny 20th century neighbours.
Driving through a housing estate, the somewhat surprising approach to Hopetoun House, we soon saw the William Adam magnificent façade, like some baroque stage set surmounted by a tiara of stone urns. Inside, each room displays a welter of fascinating pictures and objects, all recounting the long history of the Hope family. Portraits by Scottish Raeburn, Italian Carracci, and Dutch Jansen jostle for space with a vast painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds from the school of Rubens. A fairly recent acquisition is the group portrait of Lord Charles Hope and his companions on the Grand Tour. It was this party that included the ambitious Robert Adam, thus precipitating his career onto a wider field than his native Scotland.
Nearby Dalmeny was next on the list. This gothic-revival house stands close to the shore-line looking out to the Isle of Inchcolm, and the North Sea. We were greeted by Lady Roseberry who talked about the treasures of the house and particularly the magnificent French furniture rescued from the Rothschild inheritance. Here, displayed in the Drawing Room are displayed some works by Van Riesenburgh, Oeben, Carlin, in fact all the great names in 18th century ebenisterie. Pieces which would gratify the lust of any collector are spoken of with familiarity and affection by Lady Roseberry. “This table has got lots of slidey bits”, not the sort of language one expects to hear from the awe-struck museum curators.
Next day to Holyrood House. Popular destination for all Scotland-bound tourists with its tales of dastardly deeds and Mary, Queen of Scots. There is an excellent audio-guide, not always the friendliest of instruments, which leads you round both the William Bruce and the earlier parts of the building. Relics of Queen Mary are cleverly displayed in cabinets designed by Alec Cobbe with hand-written labels charmingly evoking an earlier type of museum display. But the highlight of the day must surely be the exhibition in the Queens Gallery, Gold. This almost mesmeric substance is shown in various guises all illustrated with objects from the Royal Collection. Gold as a sacred substance, gold as a regal substance. What extraordinary objects there are! The gold tiger’s head from the throne of Tipoo Sahib, a monster gold tray made for the Prince Regent, an Ecuador royal gold crown as well as a Cornish gold cup dating from 1700BC, juxtaposed with William Nicholson’s painting of a gold jug of 1937. Quite one of the most fascinating of exhibits in this beautifully designed gallery.
A quick taxi-ride takes us to the Royal Yacht Britannia, now permanently moored at the Ocean Terminal. Spick and span as she was on active service this unique vessel exudes a contentment which must have made her a most covetable posting for anyone in the Royal Navy. Far removed from the Rubens paintings and gilded columns of a royal palace this ship is simply furnished with occasional dashes of splendour as in the silverware for the dining tables.
It is sad to think that this proud vessel will no longer be used for its original purpose.
So ends a few sunlit days in Edinburgh. A chance to see a fragment of the treasures, artistic and otherwise which abound in this “Athens of the North”.