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.

Early works

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.

European highlights

RubensThe 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.

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