Two celebrations were wrapped up as one in the recent exhibition of Hugh Buchanan’s watercolours of Georgian Edinburgh in the Scottish Gallery. The New Town was born 250 years ago, its birth certiﬁcate being the ground plan by 28-year-old James Craig, nephew of Augustan poet James Thomson.
Craig was also closely acquainted with the great Augustan architectural dynasty, the Adams, while John Adam advised the Lord Provost on the selection of his competition entry. The other celebration is that of the Scottish Gallery, founded 175 years ago as Aitken Dott’s. Despite several changes of address and its variant name this has always been a much loved New Town ﬁxture for those who recognise a good painting and appreciate ﬁne ceramics and jewelry.
Buchanan’s haunting, lyrical images could not have found a better setting. They were clearly never intended to be orthodox portrayals of Edinburgh’s well-ordered classical buildings and palace-fronted tenements, for this is a civic psycho-drama recalling the grand guignol interior tableaux of James Pryde or the dreamily composed high-ceilinged salons of Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell. There are, for sure, no comforting cloud-scudded urban vistas in the style of Sandby, Nasmyth, or engraver Thomas Shepherd.
The New Town may be a rationally planned civic masterpiece of the post-Culloden Enlightenment, but shades of Hogg’s Justiﬁed Sinner and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde linger yet in its elegant shadows. Buchanan, in some cases, imposes a contemporary twist, presenting a number of his streetscapes as images reﬂected on the bonnets and windscreens of parked cars. This is, after all, the eighteenth century viewed from a twenty-ﬁrst century vantage point.
Several paintings break the New Town theme, however, if not by much. Robert Adam’s Old College on South Bridge is a quintessential part of that ‘kind of revolution’ which he and his brother James declared in their joint folio publication Works in Architecture, while Playfair’s Surgeons’ Hall provides evidence that the Southside, too, had its place in the development of Neo-classicism, as did Thomas Hamilton’s Dean Orphanage, halfway to Blackhall and leafy suburbia, and now part of the Gallery of Modern Art.
‘Tail lights, South Bridge’ presents the facade of the Old College in a contemporary context, the rain-soaked black stone of the facade reﬂecting the red glow of car brake lights. The twenty-two foot high column monoliths – once blonde white and closer to the cream Pentelic marble of Athens than North European slate-black – were raised and placed with much ingenuity after being hauled by sixteen horses apiece from Craigleith. Some feared this might test the North Bridge to destruction. The trepidation was understandable; the ﬁrst North Bridge had collapsed in 1769, killing ﬁve people, and causing its architect, William Mylne, to ﬂee to the debatable lands of Georgia and South Carolina rather than face the wrath of the Scottish courts.
The Old College may not be in the New Town, but it has a happy circular link with the Dott family, founders of the Scottish Gallery. The Huguenot D’Otts had settled in Anstruther and Cupar in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the eighteenth many were living in Edinburgh. Aitken Dott, the framer, gilder, and colourman who, as a sideline, offered hanging space to his artist-clients, established the business in 1842. Then aged 27, he was the son of a stone mason, Henry Dott, while his grandfather had been employed as a stone carver on the Old College, and probably took part in – or at least witnessed – the arrival of the aforementioned Craigleith columns. The family link with Old College was rekindled 150 years later, when Aitken Dott’s grandson, Norman, became one of the world’s ﬁrst Professors of Neurosurgery at his alma mater.
There is a quirky hint of that medical legacy in a carefully composed image ‘Old College Steps’. These must have felt the impress of generations of collegiate feet, Darwin’s, Carlyle’s, Stevenson’s, and Conan Doyle’s, as well as Norman Dott’s. The author of Sherlock Holmes, as it happens, has already made an appearance in the Buchanan oeuvre, being featured in his 2015 National Library of Scotland exhibition, Hugh Buchanan paints the John Murray Archive. In a chiarascuro Old College image which sears itself into the mind, a sharp shadow cuts obliquely across the end of each step, evoking a set of surgeon’s scalpels, or perhaps – for those studying law or philosophy – Occam’s razor.
Back in the New Town, variations on the theme of the anthemion patterned ‘Playfair balconies’ of Alva Street and Darnaway Street raise an awkward question. Why Playfair? I once hauled a section of such a balcony from the rubble of East Register Street, which was built seventeen years before Playfair’s birth. It is now in the Museum of Scotland – possibly the sole architectural object by Adam in the national collection of his native land, which tells us something about the low regard in which we hold our true heroes.
But the anthemion’s authorship is a minor quibble: the Adam brothers, after all, were copyists too, and possibly derived this particular design from a sketch sent to them from Rome by the antiquarian James Byres. Besides, Playfair made liberal use of the anthemion motif in his own work, as evidenced by Buchanan’s detail of stonework in ‘The Royal Scottish Academy’, featuring a bas-relief anthemion between two Doric columns. An anthemion balcony also appears in ‘Playfair Window’, a variant series of external views culminating in one with an orange blind pulled down, a bar of yellow light just above the sill. This is presented as a homage to Cadell’s ‘The Orange Blind’, now in Kelvingrove, which shows the interior of the artist’s Ainslie Place ﬂat with his favourite model, Miss Don Wauchope, in her signature wide-brimmed black hat. This time Buchanan keeps us outside, not quite looking in, evoking a sense of an imagined past from which we are forever excluded.
It is tempting to look for underlying meanings and curious moments of revelation in this bifurcated series of images in which all exteriors are shown in twilight, or enveloped in darkness, while interiors have sunlight streaming in. Not all is gloom, however. Dundas House, now the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew’s Square, is ﬂooded in artiﬁcial light, the statue of the Earl of Hopetoun and his horse silhouetted before it, suggesting, perhaps, a scene from Don Giovanni. Could this be Buchanan’s subtle nod to yet another anniversary, that of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947? The black columns of Surgeon’s Hall, which, perhaps appropriately, are opposite the Festival Theatre, likewise affect theatricality against the inner portico’s suffused artiﬁcial lighting.
The all-pervasive sense of drama is by no means monopolised by grand buildings. In ‘At the Dentist’ the artist leads us towards a typical New Town doorway, its lunette fanlight set over a glazed door and dimly lit from behind, eerily redolent, perhaps, of a scene from the 1955 Ealing classic, The Ladykillers. Another doorway, this time in demi-monde Broughton Street – ‘The Barony’ had long been associated with religious dissenters and witches – looms out of the darkness as a spectacular fragment from ancient Greece in the form of a double doorway with doric columns and laurel wreath entablature.
If the underlying message of this exhibition is meant to be that Edinburgh’s Enlightenment is now an Endarkenment, the point is well made. Today’s Edinburgh is a city with a council which seems happy to mark a quarter millennium of Augustan civic glory not by celebrating buildings, but by handing out planning consents to demolish and desecrate them. What was once, in the era of planning theorist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes, a city in evolution with a living resident community, is now one in disintegration, reduced to a list of opportunities for predatory developers and vanity-fuelled architects who seem, for the most part, to regard the heritage, and indeed the traditional resident community, as a nuisance.
Examples of the deﬁlement of a once noble vision crowd in fast and thick. Consent has been given for the construction of a ‘copper spiral’ hotel next door to Robert Adam’s Register House, the developer TIAA being a US pension fund for teachers and professors founded in 1917 by Andrew Carnegie which prides itself on ‘doing the right thing’. It beggars belief that a design which would probably have a problem getting a planning consent on Las Vegas Strip, and which the writer Candia McWilliam has suggested ‘resembles nothing so much as what citizens are coyly enjoined to pick up after their dogs’ is part of a commercial scheme in receipt of a £61.4 million public subsidy.
Whatever Carnegie might think about his name being taken in vain in that particular case, he would certainly have been incandescent at the council’s disposal of a tract of land adjacent to the French-renaissance Library, which he endowed in 1887. He paid for an area behind the library to protect its light, air, and views. In 2002 there were wonderful plans to improve the building, which was recommended for A listing. In 2004 Edinburgh became the world’s ﬁrst UNESCO World City of Literature, and all seemed set fair, but the council delayed the listing recommendation by ﬁfteen years, taking the opportunity meanwhile to sell the land off for yet another hotel development.
Most egregious of all is the bid to add ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ modernist extensions to one of the world’s most signiﬁcant neo-classical public buildings – Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School, a gateway of which appears in Buchanan’s exhibition. The intention is to create an ‘international luxury hotel’ for a super-rich elite whom the end-user’s New York-based CEO, Sonia Cheng, describes as ‘afﬂuential explorers’. Strangely, she forgot to mention her Royal High School interest in an interview in Focus Magazine: ‘Our essence is an all-embracing commitment to “a sense of place.” Our entire team devotes itself to immersing in the local culture of each market, then shaping something precious and unique that celebrates each city.’
Edinburgh is now a city ashamed of its history largely because of its failure to live up to it. In 1759, at the laying of the foundation stone of today’s City Chambers, David Hume’s playwright cousin, John, declared with unbridled optimism ‘Scotland’s youth salutes the dawning of a brighter morn’ as the ‘Last of the Arts, proud Architecture comes, to grace EDINA with majestic domes, BRITONS this day is laid a PRIMAL STONE.’
This may help to explain why there has been no ofﬁcial attempt to recognise the anniversary of a triumph of enlightened civic planning which was, after all, an inspiration for Catherine the Great’s St Petersburg, as well as a spectacular city on the Potomac River, Washington DC, ﬁrst promoted in The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser by a ‘Citizen of the World’, Falkirk-born and Georgetown-based merchant, George Walker.
There will be no ofﬁcial exhibition in the manner of Dream City, held at the City Art Centre in 1993, and no sponsored publication. True, in 2014, there were Anthony Lewis’s Builders of Edinburgh New Town and Alexander McCall Smith’s A Work of Beauty, followed in 2015 by the anthology Edinburgh New Town: A Model City. As for 2017, the 250th anniversary year, there is nothing of such note. Instead, we are promised a light show. For a gleam of enlightenment in the current Scottish Endarkenment we must look to A White House of Stone by William Seale, architectural historian to the White House Historical Association. This wonderful publication tells the story of the Edinburgh stonemasons who took their tools and their skills across the Atlantic and set about constructing the President’s Mansion on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We should be grateful for Dr Seale’s insightful enthusiasm, as we should be, too, to Hugh Buchanan.
The catalogue of Hugh Buchanan’s New Town exhibition is available from the scottish gallery, 16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HZ.
Tel: 0131 558 1200
The exhibition is now closed.