EVER since the renowned gallery director and art historian Sir John Leighton became director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) in 2006 there has been a pet project that he has always wanted to accomplish. Now, as he prepares to step down from his role in 2024, he has achieved his goal of significantly improving the platform that the National Gallery in Edinburgh provides for historic Scottish art.

The new Scottish Galleries, which will place some of the nation’s most important visual artworks in spaces that are much more inviting and spacious than before, will open to the public next Saturday, September 30.

“It’s something that I’ve really wanted to do, right from the beginning of my time at the ­galleries,” Leighton (below) says.

“When I first arrived, I thought that the displays of historic Scottish art could be a lot more engaging and could be done with more ambition,” he continues.

However, whilst this work was important to the ­director, there were, he acknowledges, some even more urgent priorities. These included the ­successful refurbishment of the Scottish National Portrait ­Gallery (which was completed in 2011) and the ­redevelopment of the flagship Scottish ­National ­Gallery (phase one of which, including a new ­entrance on Princes Street Gardens, was brought to fruition in 2019).

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Nonetheless, given that the new Scottish ­Galleries have been a project of Leighton’s for the 17 years of his tenure at the NGS, “it feels great to see it ­completed”, he says. It’s “a good note”, he adds, on which to pass the galleries on to his successor, ­whoever that might be.

Visitors who are familiar with the Scottish ­collection will notice a few works in the new ­galleries that have not been displayed in recent times, ­Leighton says. However, he adds, “I would say [the Scottish Galleries project] is more about improving the way that we display what was on show before.”

The Scottish collection has now, “been given much, much more room to breathe”, the director says. The previous display spaces were, he adds, “quite cramped and dark”.

Indeed, Leighton remembers, with a little ­embarrassment, that art lovers wanting to view the Scottish work in its former home encountered, “one narrow staircase leading down to it, which led to a dead-end”. All of which helps to explain the ­extraordinary and worrying statistic uncovered by NGS audience research.

“We know,” the director says, “that fewer than 20% of our visitors actually made it down there. And many of them, when they did go down, just turned around and went back, ­because it wasn’t very inviting.”

Leighton is patently proud of the ­transformation achieved by the creation of the new galleries. “To see [the gallery space] now,” he enthuses, “some great works are displayed with space and room.

“To be able to stand back from them, crikey, what a difference it makes!”

IN addition to the radical improvement in the display of some of the best-known Scottish art, there has also been a considerable amount of conservation done on many works in the collection. This careful process of cleaning and restoration has, the director says, made “an amazing difference”.

The opening of the new ­Scottish ­Galleries gives Leighton and his ­colleagues at the NGS the opportunity to tell the story of the development of our country’s visual arts with a ­renewed ­confidence. The galleries have the remit of covering Scottish art from 1800 to 1945.

To that end, a number of works have been brought over from the Scottish ­National Portrait Gallery, down on Queen Street in Edinburgh city centre, and from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in the West End of the city.

“For the first time, we’re going into the 20th century in these displays,” the ­director says.

This extension of the narrative up to 1945 means that the National Gallery will now be displaying work from ­particular periods and specific schools for the first time. Leighton is particularly excited to be bringing the work of the Scottish ­colourists into the new galleries.

The paintings of the celebrated ­artists Samuel Peploe, J.D Fergusson and ­Francis Cadell will offer some, “­enticing colour to get your eyes going”, the ­director says, with discernible pleasure.

Take, for example, Peploe’s Still Life (below) from 1913. An explosion of vibrant greens, blues, reds and yellows, this ­painting sits confidently between ­representation and abstraction.

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It is discernibly a depiction of a table on which sit a number of objects, including a teacup and saucer, a fruit bowl, a jug and a bottle. However, as in many paintings of the period, the angles are improbable, the lines veering towards cubism.

By adding works such as this to the National Gallery’s Scottish collection, Leighton and his team are making a ­significant shift.

This new widening of the National ­Gallery’s window onto the history of Scottish art is overdue, the director ­believes. Not least because, he observes, “if you look at the National Galleries’ ­collection as a whole, half of it, ­numerically, could be described as Scottish, in one way or another”.

That amounts to 60,000 artworks across the NGS estate that qualify as “Scottish”, either in terms of the ­national origins of the artist or the subject ­depicted, or both. For instance, one of the most famous ­pictures that will be in the new galleries is Sir Edwin Landseer’s iconic image The Monarch Of The Glen (circa 1851).

Whilst Landseer himself was ­English, his painting – which depicts a great stag against a backdrop of Caledonian ­mountains – is one of the most famously Scottish artworks of the 19th century. For some, the picture is a great celebration of Scotland’s spectacular fauna and the natural beauty of its landscape.

For others, the painting is a major ­player in a 19th-century ­romanticisation of ­Scotland that functioned as a ­distraction from the crimes and ­iniquities – ­particularly the Highland and Lowland Clearances – that disfigured Scottish ­society. Others still would contend that, paradoxically, Landseer’s work fulfilled – and continues to fulfil – both of these ­functions simultaneously.

Whatever one’s view of this ­celebrated and contentious work of art, it is ­notable that it continues to prompt lively ­discussion almost two centuries after it was painted. That, in itself, makes the case for Scottish Galleries that seek to give Scotland’s art, and the associated history, culture and politics, a greater prominence in our national life.

This telling of a national artistic ­story is important to Leighton. “­Showing ­Scottish art in an international ­context, and ­showing international art in a ­Scottish context is what [the NGS] should be about,” he says.

“Yes, Scottish artists go out into the world, and they learn their trade in ­London, Paris, America, or other artistic centres,” he adds. “But they also make their mark on the world stage.

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“It’s not all about Scottish art being ­influenced from the outside. It’s the ­other way as well. There’s an interchange, an exchange of influences.”

For the director, the purpose of the Scottish Galleries is to inspire audiences to think of Scottish art in a historical context. “You can see great Scottish art across the country,” he says, “but what I think this [project] does is give a natural home for a golden period of Scottish art.”

Leighton believes that the collection encompasses a time, “when you sense that the visual arts are just starting to take real root, and to build a sense of ­momentum and tradition as the 19th ­century progresses.” He hopes that the Scottish Galleries will be a “home” and “focal point” for the art of this crucial period.

ONE of the functions of the galleries, he says, is to “raise awareness of the depth and the richness of our own national visual arts culture. I can’t think of anything [that the NGS can do] that’s more important than that, really”.

When it comes to the experience of entering the new galleries, the director is very pleased that the first artwork one will encounter in the Scottish Galleries is William Johnstone’s 1929 picture A Point In Time. “This large, abstract painting is a very important picture in the history of Scottish modern art,” he says.

“I wonder what people will make of that,” he continues. “Hopefully the ­colour and the design will pull people in.”

There is an inherent tension within what we might call the broader ­national estate of the visual arts in Scotland. The country boasts fine galleries and ­museums that exhibit the wealth of works Scotland holds, from the ­magnificent ­Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the ­recently redeveloped Burrell ­Collection in ­Glasgow, to the ­handsomely refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery and the acclaimed V&A in Dundee.

However, the fact remains that ­Edinburgh, as the capital, has a monopoly on the National Galleries. This creates something of a paradox for Leighton.

On the one hand, he is at pains to praise the strength and diversity of ­Scotland’s galleries. However, on the other, he admits to some disappointment in the under-representation of particular artists and movements within the NGS collection.

This is especially true, he notes, with regard to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the art deco pioneer, and father of the ­famous Glasgow Style in drawing, ­painting, ­design and architecture.

“Traditionally the National Galleries didn’t really ­collect Glasgow School,” he says. “The view was, ‘the Hunterian [Art Gallery, at the University of Glasgow] does that, Kelvingrove does that. There are Mackintoshes all over Glasgow, it’s Glasgow’s thing’.”

This somewhat cavalier attitude is, ”a bit of a regret”, the director admits. Even if he wishes that the Scottish Galleries were able to tell more of the Mackintosh story, he’s glad that they are, at least, able to exhibit a number of works on paper by the great man, and by his accomplished wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and her sister Frances Macdonald.

“It’s just a little wall,” the director ­acknowledges. However, he hopes that the display will direct some visitors ­towards Mackintosh’s work in Glasgow (albeit that his magnum opus, the ­Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art remains under reconstruction following the two catastrophic fires in 2014 and 2018).

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The case of Mackintosh is an especially clear example of the place of the ­National Galleries of Scotland, in general, and the new Scottish Galleries, in particular, in the wider ecology of art in Scotland. This is something Leighton believes very strongly.

“If you’re talking about a national ­collection, you should think about it as a dispersed thing,” he says. “It isn’t just about what you see in Edinburgh, it’s what you see in Glasgow, or Inverness, or Stirling, or Perth, or Dundee.

“If people coming to [the Scottish ­Galleries] are encouraged to explore ­elsewhere, that would be great.”

The Scottish Galleries open on September 30 at the National Gallery of Scotland, The Mound, Edinburgh.