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Feorlean

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Tuesday 29 November 2011: Karsh and Kissling - the Portrait Gallery re-opens

I was very lucky this evening to be asked to speak at a National Galleries dinner in the National Portrait Gallery in Queen St in Edinburgh which closed two years ago for a massive reconstruction and refurbishment and which will be re-opened by the First Minister on the 1st of December. Seeing round it on the last weekend before closure was about the final thing I did as Culture Minister before being suddenly re-shuffled on the 1st of December 2009.

Lucky because its was a wonderful event, and a great opportunity to thank the various donors who made it possible including the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund but also some key private individuals and trusts and to thank all those who had worked on it.

And lucky because a brief, whistlestop tour from the Director General of the Galleries, John Leighton and the Chair of the Trustees, Ben Thompson.

I was able to take a few pictures, with their permission and I agonised over what to blip. The old entrance hall has been cleaned and is even more magnificent with its colourful frieze of characters from Scottish history. The new spaces (reclaimed from store cupboards and from usage by others ) are spectacular and the people and places of Scotland shine out to help us understand them better and understand our place in the world. My favourite portrait - Ramsay's Rousseau - is there in a wonderful gallery which illustates the Enlightenment. So is Moffat's Poet's Pub, the visual symbol of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. And there are Laveries and Lauders, Raeburns and Ramsays and everything inbetween.

But photography must be my choice. I spent a number of years on the Board of the putative and not yet achieved Scottish National Gallery of Photography. One of the drivers for that initiative was the National Collection held in the Portrait Gallery but never properly seen. Now there are a number of spaces devoted to this great collection and this a glimpse of a corner of one - a wall shared by Karsh and Kissling .

On the left is Karsh's portrait of John Buchan, then Governor General of Canada and for some reason wearing a native american headress. On the right is a continuous playing of Kissling's "Poem of Remote Lives", of which I did a frame by frame analysis in my first book on Kissling.

But this is only scraping the surface. Go and see the restored Gallery as soon as you can. And celebrate the fact, as Seona Reid said last night in her speech, that this is the fourth major opening or re-opening of a major cultural insitution in Scotland this year; firstly the new Burns Centre, then the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, followed by the Royal Museum and now the superb reborn National Portrait Gallery.

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