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Places to Visit in Edinburgh : The Royal Scottish Academy and The National Gallery

Updated on May 3, 2014

Placess to Visit in Edinburgh : The Royal Scottish Academy and The National Gallery

For visitors, or even residents of Scotland's capital city Edinburgh, a visit to The Mound is always recommended.

In case you are wondering how this pedestrian area got its name it derives from its origins as a huge earthen mound of excavated soil and rock.

This came from the construction of the Georgian New Town from the 1760's and the name has stuck ever since.

It provided a land bridge between the New Town and the historical heart of the Old Town where you will find the famous Royal Mile. This will take you to Edinburgh Castle at the top end of the mile and the Palace of Holyrood House at the lower.

On The Mound itself you can enjoy shopping at market stalls and engage with political activists who find it ideal to promote their campaigns and leaflet passing trade. It's a lively area during the annual Edinburgh Festival every August when it is inundated with people

Musicians, singers, acrobats and whatever strange performances that artistes can bring to the cultural centre of Europe arrive for that one month. On the run up to Christmas there is also a popular German market where quality cuts of meat and warming mulled wine are available for those shopping for gifts in its stalls.

However two permanent fixtures remain there all year round and are nicknamed 'The Temples on the Mound' due to their design. These are the fabulous museums of the Royal Scottish Academy and The National Gallery of Scotland.

Both buildings were designed by the celebrated 19th century architect William Henry Playfair who has numerous fine buildings on display in the city.

The Royal Scottish Academy

The Royal Scottish Academy or RSA, was completed in 1826 with further additions by 1836 which were also designed by Playfair. It is built in the Greek Doric style with its frontal columns facing onto Princes Street. The interior has been modernised to international standards during a major restoration and refurbishment in 2002.

It is independently funded under the auspices of leading artists and architects in order to promote the visual medium through exhibitions and educational events. It showcases contemporary works of art in temporary exhibitions and is particularly noted for encouraging new and exciting works of innovation and diversity.

Previous exhibitions have included work by Scots such as the late William Littlejohn, Alec Finlay, Victoria Crowe, Alan Davie and Elspeth Lamb. Also featured have been English wood sculptor Keith Rand, Welsh sculptor Laura Ford and the late American abstract artist Helen Frankenthaler.

Each year it presents a Student Exhibition and also takes part in the Edinburgh Festival programme every August. New Scottish art is highly represented in its events throughout the rest of the year. Depending on which exhibition is on display there may be an entrance fee although some events are free.


'We are not amused'

The large statue of Queen Victoria on the roof above the entrance dates from 1844 and was created by the eminent sculptor Sir John Steell.

However he was not be-knighted at that time as he had to wait another 32 years when the Queen's royal sword eventually alighted onto his shoulders.

Perhaps the reason why it took so long was that Queen Victoria disliked this statue. She felt that it made her look too dumpy and rejected it.

Therefore instead of standing proudly in London the statue remained in Edinburgh and the authorities had to find it a home. The pinnacle of the RSA was chosen although it is greatly obscured from the pavement below. This may of course have been deliberate but walking down from Hanover Street the viewer will enjoy a perfect view of the Queen.

You may agree with her assessment of the statue whilst at the same time respecting Sir John's accuracy of detail and form. He eventually received his well-deserved knighthood in 1876. This was for his equestrian statue of the Queen's late husband Prince Albert which stands nearby in Charlotte Square.


The National Gallery

Work began on the National Gallery in 1848 with completion by 1853. It is Greek Ionic in style and a very popular visitor attraction in Edinburgh. As its name suggest though it does not just belong to the capital city and is the National Gallery for the whole of Scotland.

It house an excellent collection of art and is considered the most important gathering of old masters outside of London. However there there are also examples of Impressionist art from Europe.

Therefore it is well worth a visit especially as it will cost you absolutely nothing to view this wonderful museum. Although donations are always welcome for its upkeep admission is free for everyone.


The art contained within the Gallery is mostly traditional in style with examples ranging from the classical period to the 19th century.

Occasionally it will receive works on loan from other museums.

For example, recently a darkened ante-room on the ground floor displayed the magnificent and atmospheric 'Seven Sacraments' painted in the 1630's by Poussin.

Among the classical paintings are works by Raphael and also a Titian and a Botticelli.

You will also find the Spanish painters Velazquez and El Greco featured in the collection.

The Dutch and Flemish Masters

Among the Dutch Masters ensemble there is a self-portrait in middle-age by Rembrandt and other works by Van Hals and Van Dyke.

You will find other examples of 17th century Dutch Art including Peter de Hoogh and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Throughout you will note the characteristic depictions of everday life in the Netherlands using natural landscapes. This was a bourgeois preoccupation of the time which departed from the ancient backdrops of Rome and Greece indicative of classical paintings.

This was exemplified in works by the great Sir Peter Paul Rubens. His colourful and exuberant style of painting earned him the unusual accolades of double knighthoods. In 1624 by Phillip IV of Spain and then again by the British King Charles I in 1630. You will also discover work by other Flemish artists such as Quentin Massays, Bernard van Orley and the much celebrated Vermeer.


The 18th and 19th centuries

The art of the 18th century encompasses mainly Scottish, English, French and Italian paintings.

From Scotland there are superb pieces by Allan Ramsay Jnr, Sir David Wilkie and Sir William McTaggart.

Perhaps prime among equals are the portraits from the fast-flowing brush of the magnificent Sir Henry Raeburn.

Included is his famous 'The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch' which was believed to have been painted around 1795.

There is is also work by English artists such as the brilliant portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough as well as the 'Grand Style' of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

From France there are paintings by Antoine Watteau and Jean Baptiste Chardin and from Italy by Pompeo Batoni and Giovanni Tiepolo.

The art of the United States makes its first appearance in the 19th century collection with the huge and impressive 'Niagara Falls from the American Side' by Frederick Edwin Church. You will also find 'Vale of Dedham' by John Constable and 'Dream of Italy' featuring the celestial quality of Joseph Turner's ethereal style.

The Impressionists

The National Gallery strays from the realms of tradition and classicism in its 19th century works as there are many fine examples of Impressionist Art. Among a stellar cast are Renoir, Monet, Gaugin, Degas, Cezanne, Pisarro, Courbet, Sisley and of course the immortal Vincent van Gogh. The Barbizon School is also represented by Charles Daubigny, Camille Corot and Narcisse Diaz.


In the National Gallery you will mostly find paintings on its three floors but there are also many examples of sculpture. On the staircase up to the upper level you will pass many classical busts. On the ground level there are statuettes and models on the ground level as well as precious ornaments and crafted furniture on display.

However the centrepiece of the sculptural collection is the beautiful 'Three Graces' statue by Antonio Canova designed in the early 19th century. This masterpiece is jointly owned by the National Gallery with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London therefore they rotate its display every 7 years between the two cities.

As you approach the two buildings you will appreciate why Edinburgh is nicknamed the 'Athens of the North' in modern times. Architects like Playfair loved the neo-classical style and many buildings and monuments in Edinburgh have been inspired by ancient Greece and Rome.

You will find this influence all over the centre of the city including the Georgian architecture of the New Town terraces which includes work by Robert Adam and buildings by Rowand Anderson. Also high on the top of Calton Hill are tributes to the classical style including a failed and unfinished attempt to replicate the Parthenon.

You will discover many interesting museums in Edinburgh many of which are free and on the route of the regular tour buses. But most are within walking distance as Scotland's capital is not a huge city and many of its attractions are concentrated within its centre.

With their position on The Mound next to Princes Street the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery enjoy a prime position to entice people from all over the world to marvel at its superb exhibits.



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