THE National Gallery is to expand into Princes Street Gardens as part of £15 million plans to create a “world-class” home for its Scottish collections in the heart of the Capital.
Directors are negotiating with the city council to acquire a strip of land in the east of the Gardens, allowing them to push the gallery wall out by five metres – bringing it in line with the existing extension – and dramatically increase the area dedicated to work by the nation’s greatest artists.
They said rooms currently used as offices would be transformed, creating around 500sq m of additional exhibition space – equivalent to a quarter of a football pitch – so Scotland’s art can be “proudly presented to the widest possible public in a gallery of world standing”.
A new landscaped public pathway and terrace will be built at garden level, resulting in a significant expansion of the pedestrian area at Princes Street level which is used by performers at festival time.
It means a treasure trove of Scottish art, which could not be regularly exhibited before, can take pride of place in the main gallery complex, including works by the likes of Sir Henry Raeburn, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Eduardo Paolozzi.
City leaders have confirmed the strip of Princes Street Gardens needed for the extension is “common good” land, meaning ownership will be transferred to the National Gallery under an Act of Parliament rather than sold through a commercial transaction.
Gallery staff said they would meet all court and parliamentary costs created by the proposal, which it is hoped can be financed through a mix of public and private money, including an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.
A spokeswoman said: “The Scottish National Gallery is currently in the process of finalising plans to transform the visitor experience and the presentation of the Scottish collections at its buildings on The Mound. The aim of this project is to position the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) as an excellent resource for the appreciation and promotion of Scottish art.
“The NGS hope to work with Edinburgh City Council to create a world-class visitor attraction at the heart of the Capital.”
Extending the National Gallery building will allow its boundary to be aligned with that of the Weston Link – an underground network of galleries, shops and lecture theatres completed in 2004 as part of the £30m Playfair extension. Gallery directors have predicted the impact of the proposed revamp will be similar to that of the earlier project, with visitors enjoying direct access to the building from East Princes Street Gardens.
And they said a tripling of the size of the area devoted specifically to showing Scottish work could transform how it is viewed by residents and art lovers throughout the world.
“Part of the proposal includes pushing a boundary wall out slightly to align with the Weston Link building,” said the spokeswoman.
“This is a small move – an extension of five metres – but it would bring major benefits for visitors to the gallery and to the public circulating in this area. The proposal is to transform spaces that are currently used for offices into additional new gallery spaces.
“This slight rearrangement will help resolve the convoluted and confusing visitor journey around the buildings on The Mound.”
She added: “It would also provide the benefit of creating both a new landscaped public pathway and terrace at the gardens level, connecting the NGS complex more readily with the Gardens and an increased public walkway at the precinct level above, improving the width and amenity of the current north-south pedestrian route between Princes Street, the Playfair Steps and the Old Town.”
The plan has been welcomed by city leaders, who said it would mean a significant boost to the overall appearance of Princes Street Gardens.
Councillor Alasdair Rankin, left, the city’s finance leader, said: “This plan is so the galleries will be able to improve their facilities and expand their offering.
“I think it’s very positive and something like this will enable them to bring a greater offering to the people of the city and visitors.”
FEAST YOUR EYES ON THESE HIDDEN TREASURES
SCOTTISH artworks in the national collection which are not on permanent display include paintings and sculptures by a host of famous names.
Among the hidden treasures are:
• Coastal Boy, a wooden sculpture by poet, artist and writer Ian Hamilton Finlay.
• A self-portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn, the renowned Stockbridge-born portrait painter to George IV.
• The Paolozzi Gift Plaster maquettes, moulds, prints and drawings by Leith-born sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi, gifted in 1994.
• The Heroic Dosser, right, a 1987 painting by Glasgow-based Peter Howson, who was also British Official War Artist for Bosnia in 1993.
• Collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society Death masks, including those of Sir Walter Scott, Burke and Hare, as well as Shakespeare and Cromwell.
• Busts, including Sir Walter Scott and a cast of the skull of Burns.
A LONG ROAD
THE strip in East Princes Street Gardens which National Gallery chiefs want to acquire is common good land and inalienable, meaning there are tight legal controls on its use.
In order to transfer ownership from the city council, which currently holds it, a Private Bill will have to be approved by the Scottish Parliament.
City education leaders have already made use of the process to change the status of common good land at Portobello Park, paving the way for construction of a brand new Portobello High School.
Directors at the National Galleries have indicated they are willing to lodge the bill and pay costs associated with its passage through parliament.