04/01/2012 10:02 GMT | Updated 10/03/2012 05:12 GMT

From Rebellion to Romanticism on Canvas

For Thomas Carlyle, the spiritual father of Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the 'oldest Scottish portrait I can recollect to have seen, of any worth, is that of James IV'. This is, almost, the first portrait that we come across in the first gallery. But before we even begin the journey, we are greeted by an ingenious little curatorial warning in the form of Patrick Grant.

In an age of pithy sound bites, video clips and succinct PowerPoint presentations, it is understandable that we tend to focus on specifics when it comes to art.

The visual arts, like music, are increasingly enjoyed in a fragmented manner; exhibitions, as with albums, are rarely considered in their entirety and are instead reduced to a few of 'top rated' images. We discover the pieces we like, forget the ones we don't, and leave it at that. This is a shame. When considering the recently reopened treasure trove of art at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, one of the most radical innovations is the curating and general layout of the art as a whole. The result is a much richer experience, where the viewer is able to decipher the murky complexities of Scotland's past.

Take the example of rebel turned cultural oddity, Patrick Grant. Before we even enter the first gallery, which begins with the Renaissance King, James IV, we are greeted by an ingenious little curatorial warning in the form of Grant. Superficially he is just another shortbread tin image of a Scottish clansman in tartan; just the sort of image we'd all expect to see at the Gallery. Yet beneath his ambiguous smile lies a telling history of rebel turned tourist attraction. Grant was a weaver, tailor and tenant farmer and took part in the 1745 rising against the British monarchy. Outliving the bloody subjugation of the rising, Grant became something of a curiosity to a new generation. He personified a lost past: of kinship, piety and simplicity amidst a world of economic determinism, factories and urban squalor. David Wilkie, the Scottish painter, noted a growing sentimentalism towards his native land while making his fortune in London: "the Highlands have lately become a subject of great interest here in the south from the works of that great unknown the author of Waverley."

Such an overhaul of narrative - from rebel to romantic hero, and the resulting historical confusion that it produces - does not lend itself to a simple chronological procession of portraits. What is true of Grant is true of depictions of Scotland.

Traditionally, of course, portrait galleries follow a simple rule: place the art in order from oldest to newest - Henry VII, then Henry VIII, then Elizabeth I. It's so familiar that we rarely question the practice. When lined up in procession, everything seems to weave into everything else in one grand metanarrative. Yet what can the visitor really take from this format? It is not only misleading (assuming there is one easy historical narrative to be told) but also severely limiting for most viewers, unable to decipher subtle relationships and connections.

This seems especially true with the Jacobite rebellions which the Portrait Gallery covers in its Imaging Power: The Visual Culture of the Jacobite Cause exhibition. Depending on your perspective the Jacobites have variously been painted as popish plotters, Highland savages, romantic heroes or national symbols. We should gladly turn to the curator for some guidance here. Scots like John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudon, who supported the government and raised a regiment of Highlanders during the '45 rising, sit alongside Jacobite sympathisers like Alexander Murray of Elibank. Such curating, aside from highlighting the ability of painters like Allan Ramsay to follow patronage over ideology, highlight a complex story of Scots fighting Scots; a messy civil war rather than a simple narrative that pits Scots against the English.

This murky past resulted in a country intensely aware of its identity, as the Gallery's Age of Improvement exhibition highlights. It also produced some masters of manipulation when it came to individual and national awareness. The national poet, Robert Burns, made a very conscious decision to adopt the style of a rustic 'heaven sent ploughman' and the novelist Walter Scott became a brilliant stage manager during George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. In a pamphlet Scott addressed to the city during the royal visit, he noted that: 'King George IV comes hither as the descendant of a long line of Scottish kings. The blood of the heroic Bruce is in his veins...In short, we are THE CLAN, and our king is THE CHIEF'. The painter, David Wilkie, was also on site to record events and noted the monarch, 'dressed in the Highland garb' and looked 'finer than I ever saw him in any dress'. Patrick Grant was even introduced to George IV as 'His Majesty's oldest enemy'. With Scott and Wilkie, then, we have two masters of visual and historical manipulation; early experts at public relations and rebranding, able to transform a distant Hannoverian Monarch into a national symbol of unity.

It's a complex and overlapping narrative - where Wilkie draws on Burns or Scott in his imagery as each man explores ideas around national identity; where Edinburgh watches the plaid clad Hanoverian monarch and the monarch watches the nation. It is, however, a narrative that the Portrait Gallery does a stellar job in depicting. In the process it necessarily disrupts the traditional chronology - which has shocked some of the more crusty art critics. Yet the viewer is better served and the Gallery can clearly highlight the transformation of Scotland from a province associated with rebellion into a compliant and civilized land housing the 'Athens of the North', and finally into a staged managed romantic wilderness. If Grant says Scottish cliché then, it is entirely deliberate and quite knowing.

The Age of Improvement and Imagining Power: The Visual Culture of the Jacobite Cause are currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until December 2015. Admission is free.