A major artwork has been secured for the people of Scotland.

Ken Currie’s Unknown Man, a portrait of the preeminent forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland.

The arresting portrait has been on long loan to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery since 2021, but has now been secured for the nation permanently.

Unknown Man depicts one of the most distinguished, internationally famous contemporary Scots, Professor Black. Currie’s large-scale painting shows her in surgical robes standing behind the covered remains of a body. 

The idea for the portrait grew when Currie and Professor Black met during a BBC Radio 4 discussion on the relationship between art and anatomy.

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Currie later visited the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, where Professor Black was Director. The artist was so moved by the work he encountered there that he asked her to sit for a portrait. 

The title Unknown Man was given by Currie and relates to the essential aim of a forensic anthropologist – to identify remains and restore the identity of the deceased – while also referencing the covered body depicted in the painting. 

Born in 1960, Ken Currie is renowned for his unsettling portrayal of the human figure, often large-scale, dramatic canvasses of startling originality. His work prompts powerful responses as he deals with difficult, profound themes through figurative paintings which are carefully considered and painstakingly executed. Currie’s subjects often emerge from darkness, suggesting fearful dramas which are all the more disturbing because so much is suggested but not explicitly articulated. 

Currie also has another much-loved work in the national collection, Three Oncologists. This 2002 painting depicts three professors who were leading innovators in cancer research at the University of Dundee and its affiliated teaching hospital, Ninewells. 

Sir John Leighton, Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland said: “We are delighted to have acquired this powerful and moving work which has already generated a lot of interest and comment from our visitors. The Portrait gallery provides the perfect setting for this outstanding painting which now has a permanent home alongside other images of pioneers in the fields of science, sport and the arts.”

Professor Sue Black, said: “It was such a wonderful experience to work with Ken and I am so grateful that the portrait has been so well received even if it is a bit scary! I feel honoured that this has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland and secured for the nation permanently. It all feels more than a little surreal.”

Ken Currie, said: "I am delighted that Unknown Man has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland and will continue to hang in the Portrait gallery where it will hopefully inspire a new generation of young women to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Sue Black."

Jenny Waldman, Director of Art Fund, said: “I’m so pleased that Art Fund has been able to support the National Galleries of Scotland to acquire this important painting. I am sure that it will continue to delight and inspire visitors to the Portrait gallery for many years to come.”