‘Rachel Maclean: The Lion and The Unicorn’ – exhibition review

Rachel Maclean’s film The Lion and The Unicorn (2012) is the centrepiece of this exhibition at the National Gallery, London, screened in a fabulous theatre interior designed by the artist. Maclean is Scottish artist who in this satirical and thought-provoking piece of digital video art comments on some aspects of English and Scottish shared history and popular culture. After the intro featuring the well-known Skye Boat Song, a heavily made-up queenly figure dressed from head to toe in a regal but kitschy Union Jack inspired outfit welcomes the viewers to her family residence. Inside two allegorical figures: the Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland are engaged in a nonsensical conversation that seems to have taken place around the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. In the beautiful historic interiors of the Traquair House in Scotland the Lion and the Unicorn are sipping from glasses filled with thick North Sea Oil while discussing the future of the country.

still from the film The Lion and The Unicorn (2012) by Rachel Maclean

The artist plays all the characters in the film, she is almost unrecognisable under heavy make-up and prosthetics. The voice-over is a very convincing and comical compilation of various sources. Alex Salmond unwillingly voicing the Unicorn is certainly a very entertaining thing to watch. Apart from the film, on display are also digital prints from Maclean’s series I Heart Scotland (2013). Each image pokes fun at iconic and commercialised aspects of Scottish culture and history. Plenty of thistles, tartan, golf, and, of course, once again, oil.

Installation view from the exhibition The Lion and The Unicorn – digital prints from I Heart Scotland series (2013) by Rachel Maclean (photo Ground Impressions)

In the current political climate this is a very timely exhibition. Produced in 2012 the film itself is one of the more political pieces by the artist, and as such might have a much wider appeal than Maclean’s other projects. Films such as Lolcats (2012) and Germs (2013) are meant as social satire wrapped in neon and pastel colours and complemented with a mixture of headache inducing computer games sounds and electronic music. In those more typical works of Maclean the artist constructs a distorted fantasy world of modern society’s desires, anxieties and addiction to technology and media. If her observations are quite on point, the digital videos can easily cause an overload of sound and colour. In contrast The Lion and The Unicorn (2012) is much easier on the senses, the imagery is not unsettling, and the music is almost relaxing.

An interesting move by the National Gallery is the pairing The Lion and The Unicorn exhibition with the Monarch of the Glen exhibition (the painting by Sir Edwin Landseer which is one of the most loved images in Scotland is currently on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland). Both exhibitions share an interest in the construction of national identity with the help of the images. The two artists could not have been more different, while the Landseer’s oil painting plays into romanticised vision of Scottish Highlands, Maclean’s works are an amusing update of some iconic images of Scotland and ‘Scottishness’.


The exhibition The Lion and The Unicorn is free and runs at the National Gallery, London until 3 February 2019.

Exhibition website:


You can explore some of Rachel Maclean’s works on the artist’s website.


The full film can be seen at the exhibition but you can watch a short clip from it here:



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