FOR the past two centuries or so, the Royal Scottish Academy has been making the careers of Scottish artists via its prestigious annual open exhibition. But when the society, since the early 20th century housed in the sphinx-topped William Henry Playfair temple on the Mound, was inaugurated as the Royal Scottish Academy in 1838, one of its founding purposes was the building of a Scottish national collection and raising the profile of Scottish art.

In 1910, RSA President James Guthrie organised the transfer of a substantial portion of the work that the RSA had been assiduously collecting for the past 70 years to the National Gallery, which it had been instrumental in founding, so providing an important portion of the basis on which the National Gallery’s collections have since been built, alongside their own substantial holdings. Just over 100 years later the transferred collections have been brought back together with the RSA gleanings of the past century in a vast and eclectic exhibition, Ages of Wonder.

There are rooms here dedicated to the 20th century, the 21st, rooms dedicated to portraiture or printmaking. In the vast central gallery space, the big hitters of the past 200 years abut in stylistic diversity, from Jacopo Bassano’s The Adoration of the Kings to David Robert’s Rome: Sunset from the convent of St Onofrio on the Janiculum. Kenny Hunter’s own sculptural portrait of James Guthrie, one of the few presidents not to have a portrait in the collection, stands divided, commissioned for the exhibition.

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But it is the Victorian Salon room which is the epitome of what one thinks of as the Academy, indeed any Academy, from here to London, Paris and beyond. Here is the dado to ceiling hang in which gold frames abut, a clash of nudes and mythical landscapes, of fashionable, romantic vistas of the Middle East and misty Scottish hills, to parlour pictures, Renaissance copies and portraits. It’s a fabulous thing, closeted here in Room III, with its comfortable bench flanked by portrait busts inviting long contemplation. If the pictures seem to battle for attention at first, one gradually notices the detail. And then it is a joy.

There is something in the mass presentation that makes this less a wonder of individual artistry at first than an architectural whole, for this too must have been what the Victorians saw – the presentation of a series of paintings, some of which turned out to be bravura examples of their art, others of which seemed to hit some passing fashion before sinking in a miasma of unremarkableness.

The exhibition seems, in some ways, to take its inspiration from a painting (in the Victorian salon room) of the National Gallery, made in the mid 19th century by an unknown artist, showing the gallery filled with people and their easels, painting and sketching, studying the art stacked high on the walls. Teaching young artists, furthering their careers, was one of the founding aims of the RSA.

And so, in what should be a fascinating series of events, George Donald (RSA) and guest artists such as John Byrne (RSA) will conduct contemporary life drawing classes every Thursday over the next couple of months with a group of emerging artists. The easels from the previous week’s class are left with sketched works in progress, the walls around hung about with classical life studies from the past two centuries.

Downstairs, more history in a room of prints revolving around ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel etching press, a weighty and impressive thing, where new prints will be made on a weekly basis from existing etching plates by technician Leena Nammari. Further along, Calum Colvin, who has relocated his studio, in effect, to the lower galleries, is in two days a week to make new work.

The diversity of 200 years of subjective collecting from an institution which necessarily rode the wave of artistic fashion, means that whilst there might be art historical holes, what is presented is a fascinating history of an institution. If there are Raeburns and Roberts decked in gilt frames, there is also the small-scale, the practical. An incidental display, the first major gift from a sculptor’s studio, of sculptor Keith Rand’s handmade wood-carving tools, laid out in a display case in the foyer apse, each specifically designed for a certain task, is a fascinating diversion, a joy of craft and tactile, practical tools.

And then, too, there is architect Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities made specifically for this exhibition to celebrate and display some of the RSA’s diverse library collections. The idea of the wunderkammer is, indeed, a rather apt analogy for the entire exhibition.

Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art, 1540 to Now

Royal Scottish Academy, The Mound, Edinburgh

0131 624 6110, www.royalscottishacademy.org, until 7 Jan 2018

Mon–Sat, 10am–5pm, Sun 12pm–5pm, For events, see website