The Remaking of Scotland Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860
The Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860 is a new, free exhibition running from 16 June 2018 – 27 June 2021 at The National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street that looks at the role prominent individuals played in the growing status of Scotland as a nation both at home and overseas during this period of roughly 100 years.
Through a careful selection of portraits and paintings from their archives, the gallery gives us an insight into how a small nation flourished during the Scottish Enlightenment to produce artist, poets, writers, scientists, soldiers, sailors, thinkers, administrators, missionaries, and adventurers whose influence was felt far beyond their national boundaries.
Some portraits you would expect to be here; the iconic half length portrait of Robert Burns (one of the very few period portraits of him) by Alexander Nasmyth is one such painting, and one of the gallery’s most famous images, John Singleton Copley’s magnificent large portrait of Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton is another. There are some pleasant surprises here too though. Elizabeth Hamilton (1757 – 1816) writer and educationalist by Sir Henry Raeburn, and John Sakeouse (1797 – 1819) Inuit whaler and draughtsman by Alexander Nasmyth is another.
One striking painting in this exhibition is Sir William Allan’s The Slave Market, Constantinople with its depiction of an Egyptian slave-merchant selling a Greek girl to a Turkish Pasha on horseback still has as much relevance today as when it was first painted in 1838. This work is nicely matched by a portrait of the artist himself painted by William Nicholson.
Many Scots travelled far and wide, to destinations all over the known world, along the way forging close relationships with India, the Americas and Arctic, as well as the Caribbean. This time of soldiers and adventurers is however one that needs to be viewed with some caution today though, as one nation’s (British) military and commercial expansion is potentially another nation’s subjugation and exploitations. One culture’s missionary zeal is another culture’s belief system eradication. Globalisation may be a relatively modern word, but its concepts, underpinned by economic expansionism by any nation or culture (so often the two go hand in hand) has shown throughout recorded history dating as far back to ancient texts, to European colonialism of the past 500 years and of course the British Empire that for every economic and cultural winner there are many more economic and cultural losers in history. Someone viewing this exhibition from the Caribbean will have, I think, a completely different cultural outlook on some of the people and events featured in this exhibition.
The splendid portrait featuring the wealth and opulence of Mohamed Ali Khan Walejah, (1717-1795) Nawab of the Carnatic by George Willison, I think gives a few clues as to what fuelled many to travel to unknown places. For others of course, events like the Highland Clearances left many Scots with no alternative but to leave their homeland (often by military force) as rearing sheep became more profitable to the landowners than the men, women and children that were tenants on their lands.
The one thing that is not in dispute however is the massive contribution that many of the Scots featured in this exhibition made to The Arts and The Sciences. Writers, Poets, Artists, Scientists, Educators, People of Medicine - Scots men and women were at the forefront of much of what we take for granted in modern life.
I view this exhibition with mixed emotions of wonder and sadness as it represents what is great about Scotland and its people and what is sometimes difficult to come to terms with properly from the luxury of a modern viewpoint looking back at history. Some of the biggest statements are oddly not on the walls in the paintings, but in the unseen history behind and between some of these works. Art and history really are in the eye of the beholder.
Review by Tom King
The Remaking of Scotland:
Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760- 1860
16 June 2018 – 27 June 2021
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
1 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
0131 624 6200 Admission FREE