Explore Edinburgh and the Lothians
The NEW TOWN, itself well over two hundred years old, stands in total contrast to the Old Town: the layout is symmetrical, the streets are broad and straight, and most of the buildings are Neoclassical. Originally intended to be residential, today the New Town is the bustling hub of the city’s professional, commercial and business life, dominated by shops, banks and offices.
The existence of the New Town is chiefly due to the vision of George Drummond, who made schemes for the expansion of the city soon after becoming Lord Provost in 1725. Work began on the draining of the Nor’ Loch below the castle in 1759, a job that took some sixty years. The North Bridge, linking the Old Town with the main road leading to the port of Leith, was built between 1763 and 1772 and, in 1766, following a public competition, a plan for the New Town by 22-year-old architect James Craig was chosen. Its gridiron pattern was perfectly matched to the site: central George Street, flanked by showpiece squares, was laid out along the main ridge, with parallel Princes Street and Queen Street on either side, built up on one side only, so as not to block the spectacular views of the Old Town and Fife.
The layout of the greater New Town is a remarkable grouping of squares, circuses, terraces, crescents and parks along with Charlotte Square and the assemblage of curiosities on and around Calton Hill. However, it also contains assorted Victorian additions, notably the Scott Monument on Princes Street, the Royal Botanic Garden on its northern fringe, as well as two of the city’s most important public collections – the National Gallery of Scotland and, further afield, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.Read More
National Gallery of Scotland
National Gallery of Scotland
Princes Street Gardens are bisected by the Mound, one of only two direct road links between the Old and New Towns (the other is North Bridge), formed in the 1780s by dumping piles of earth and other waste brought from the New Town’s building plots. At the foot of the mound on the Princes Street level are two grand Neoclassical buildings, the interlinked National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy. Both were designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), though the exterior of the National Gallery is considerably more austere than its bold Athenian counterpart.
Built as a “temple to the fine arts” in 1850, the National Gallery houses Scotland’s finest array of European and Scottish art from the early 1300s to the late 1800s. Its modest size makes it a manageable place to visit in a couple of hours and affords a pleasantly unrushed atmosphere.
A gallery highlight is a superb painting by Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child which, along with Raphael’s graceful tondo The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, has undergone careful restoration to reveal a striking luminosity and depth of colour. Of the four mythological scenes by Titian, the sensuous Three Ages of Man is one of his most accomplished early compositions. Alongside the Titians, Bassano’s Adoration of the Kings and a dramatic altarpiece, The Deposition of Christ, by Tintoretto, as well as several other works by Veronese, complete the fine Venetian section.
Rubens’ The Feast of Herod is an archetypal example of his sumptuously grand manner. Among the four canvases by Rembrandt are a poignant Self-Portrait Aged 51 and the ripely suggestive Woman in Bed. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is the largest and probably the earliest of the thirty or so surviving paintings by Vermeer.
Impressionist masters have a strong showing, including a collection of Degas’ sketches, paintings and bronzes, Monet’s Haystacks (Snow) and Renoir’s Woman Nursing Child. Representing the Post-Impressionists are three exceptional works by Gauguin, including Vision After the Sermon, set in Brittany, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, and Cézanne’s The Big Trees – a clear forerunner of modern abstraction.
Scottish and English works
Of Sir Henry Raeburn’s large portraits, the swaggering masculinity of Sir John Sinclair in Highland Dress shows the artist’s technical mastery, though he was equally confident when working on a smaller scale, as seen in one of the gallery’s most popular pictures, The Rev Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. The gallery also owns a brilliant array of watercolours by Turner, faithfully displayed each January when damaging sunlight is at its weakest; at other times two of his fine Roman views are displayed in a dim gallery.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
At the far northwestern fringe of the New Town, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was Britain’s first collection devoted solely to twentieth-century painting and sculpture, and now covers two grand Neoclassical buildings on either side of Belford Road. The extensive wooded grounds serve as a sculpture park, featuring works by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and, most strikingly, Charles Jencks, whose Landform, a swirling mix of ponds and grassy mounds, dominates the area in front of the gallery.
The gallery on the western side of Belford Road, Modern One, divides its display spaces between temporary exhibitions and selections from the gallery’s own holdings; the latter are arranged thematically, but are almost constantly moved around. The collection starts with early twentieth-century Post-Impressionists, then moves through the Fauvists, German Expressionism, Cubism and Pop Art, with works by Lichtenstein and Warhol establishing a connection with the extensive holdings of Eduardo Paolozzi’s work in the Modern Two. There’s a strong section on living British artists, from Gilbert & George to Britart stars, while modern Scottish art ranges from the Colourists to the distinctive styles of contemporary Scots including John Bellany, a portraitist of striking originality, and the poet-artist-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Modern Two, also known as the Dean Gallery, was refurbished to make room for the huge collection of work of Edinburgh-born sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, described by some as the father of Pop Art. There’s an awesome introduction to Paolozzi’s work in the form of the huge Vulcan, a half-man, half-machine that squeezes into the Great Hall immediately opposite the main entrance – view it both from ground level and the head-height balcony to appreciate the sheer scale of the piece. In the rooms to the right of the main entrance Paolozzi’s London studio has been expertly re-created, right down to the clutter of half-finished casts, toys and empty pots of glue.
The ground floor also holds a world-renowned collection of Dada and Surrealist art; Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray are all represented. Look out also for Dali’s The Signal of Anguish and Magritte’s Magic Mirror along with work by Miró and Giacometti – all hung on crowded walls with an assortment of artefacts and ethnic souvenirs. Elsewhere, look out for 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright’s major wall-painting The Stairwell Project, his most complex and ambitious work to date in Britain.
Contemporary art in Edinburgh
Contemporary art in Edinburgh
In addition to the contemporary art collections in the city’s National Galleries there are a number of smaller, independent galleries around the city.
The Collective Gallery
Tends to focus on young local artists, and doesn’t flinch from showing experimental modern work. Tues–Sun 11am–5pm.
A highly respected studio and gallery dedicated to contemporary printmaking. Tues–Sat 10am–6pm.
The stylish modern design of this dynamic and much-admired art space is the capital’s first port of call for top-grade international artists. Mon–Sat 11am–6pm, Sun noon–5pm.
Ingleby’s reputation for ambitious projects and innovative artists makes it one of the nation’s foremost small private art galleries, often featuring Scotland’s premier stars such as Alison Watt, Kenny Hunter and Callum Innes. Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, plus Sun noon–5pm in Aug.
Open Eye Gallery
One of the city’s best commercial galleries, regularly featuring shows by Scotland’s top contemporary artists.
The longest established of a number of small galleries on this New Town street; some of the most striking works are in the basement area, dedicated to applied art. Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–4pm.
The Edinburgh Festival
The Edinburgh Festival
For all its appeal as a historic and attractive capital city, Edinburgh is perhaps best known for its incredible annual Festival, which takes place every August and transforms the place into an overwhelming mass of cultural activity. To even attempt to get a handle on what’s going on, it’s worth appreciating that the “Edinburgh Festival” is an umbrella term that encompasses several different festivals. The principal events are the Edinburgh International Festival and the much larger Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but there are also Book, Jazz and Blues and Art festivals going on, as well as a Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade.
The sheer volume of the Festival’s output can be bewildering: virtually every branch of arts and entertainment is represented, and world-famous stars mix with pub singers in the daily line-up. It can be a struggle to find accommodation, get hold of the tickets you want, book a table in a restaurant or simply get from one side of town to another; you can end up seeing something truly dire, or something mind-blowing; you’ll inevitably try to do too much, stay out too late or spend too much – but then again, most Festival veterans will tell you that if you don’t experience these things then you haven’t really “done” the Festival.
Dates, venues, names, star acts, happening bars and burning issues change from one year to the next. This unpredictability is one of the Festival’s greatest charms, so be prepared for – indeed, enjoy – the unexpected.
The Edinburgh international festival
The Edinburgh International Festival, or the “Official Festival”, was the original Edinburgh Festival, conceived in 1947 as a celebration of pan-European culture in the postwar era. Initially dominated by opera, other elements such as top-grade theatre, ballet, dance and classical music now carry as much weight, and it’s still a highbrow event, its high production values and serious approach offering an antidote to the Fringe’s slapdash vigour.
Performances take place at the city’s larger venues such as the Usher Hall and the Festival Theatre and, while ticket prices run to over £60, it is possible to see shows for £10 or less if you’re prepared to queue for the handful of tickets kept back until the day. The festival culminates in a Fireworks Concert beside the castle, visible from various points in the city.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Even standing alone from its sister festivals, the Fringe is easily the world’s largest arts gathering. Each year sees more than 40,000 performances from more than 750 companies, with more than 21,000 participants from all over the world. There are something in the region of 1500 shows every day, round the clock, in 250 venues around the city. Much more than any other part of the Festival, it’s the dynamism, spontaneity and sheer exuberance of the Fringe that dominate Edinburgh every August.
These days, the most prominent aspect of the Fringe is comedy, but you’ll also find a wide range of theatre, musicals, dance, children’s shows, exhibitions, lectures and music – and a decent range of free shows.
While the Fringe is famous for its tiny and unexpected auditoriums, five Fringe giants colonize clusters of different-sized spaces for the duration of the Festival. These are all safe bets for decent shows and a bit of star-spotting. And while it’s nothing like as large as the venues reviewed here, you shouldn’t ignore the programme put on at the Traverse Theatre. Long a champion of new drama, the “Trav” combines the avant-garde with professional presentation and its plays are generally among the Fringe’s most acclaimed.
Long based in George Street’s Assembly Rooms, Assembly has been on the move in recent years with its impressive line-up of top-of-the-range drama and big-name music and comedy acts.
The most varied programme of the big five, occasionally staging controversial productions that other venues might be too wary to promote.
The comedy-focused Gilded Balloon bases its operations in a students’ union, the gothic Teviot Row.
A slightly raucous atmosphere, thanks to its busy courtyard bar, with offbeat comedy and whimsical appearances by panellists on Radio 4 game shows. They organize events at a variety of external venues, too.
Operates eleven comedy and cabaret spaces, including the giant, inflatable upside-down cow, “the Underbelly”, on Bristo Square.
The other festivals
Edinburgh Art Festival
A relative newcomer on the scene, held throughout August and including high-profile exhibitions by internationally renowned contemporary artists as well as retrospectives of work by pioneering twentieth-century artists. Virtually every art gallery in the city participates, from small private concerns to blockbuster shows at the National Galleries of Scotland’s five venues.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Taking place in the last two weeks of August, this is the world’s largest celebration of the written word. It’s held in a tented village in Charlotte Square and offers talks, readings and signings by a star-studded line-up of visiting authors, as well as panel discussions and workshops.
Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival
Immediately prior to the Fringe in the first week in August, easing the city into the festival spirit. Highlights include nightly jam sessions and a colourful New Orleans-style Mardi Gras and street parade.
The Military Tattoo
Staged in the spectacular stadium of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, the Tattoo is an unashamed display of pomp and military pride. The programme of choreographed drills, massed pipe bands, historical tableaux, energetic battle re-enactments, national dancing and pyrotechnics has been a feature of the Festival for over half a century, its emotional climax provided by a lone piper on the Castle battlements. Followed by a quick fireworks display, it’s a successful formula barely tampered with over the years. Tickets (£16–50) should be booked well in advance.