STATUES may be inert and silent, but they can rouse passions. Consider Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes, or Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, creepily weaponized to goad liberal sentiment with defiant representations of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davies. Edinburgh’s civic monuments cause little offence, though it has been remarked that the city has more statues of animals than it does of significant women such as Elsie Inglis, Muriel Spark, or some who should be better known, like the abolitionist Fanny Wright. Those we do have, however, bring a stunning architectural upside to the capital of a country which you might think would harbour a Calvinist displeasure in such displays of sublime artistry and solemn veneration. Initially I expected Public Sculpture of Edinburgh (Ray McKenzie, with research by Dianne King and Tracy Smith) to be a dry-as-dust catalogue raisonné of the capital’s great and good wrought in stone and bronze. In fact, it turns out to be a compelling collection of romping tales of the city. McKenzie produced a similar book on Glasgow some time ago. It has only taken Edinburgh seventeen years to catch up.
Every statue tells a story, and how. A whole book, for example, could be devoted to James Pittendreigh MacGillivray, whose memorial to William Ewart Gladstone, at the centre of Coates Crescent in the West End, memorializes the former prime minister attended by naked boys. Nor is all harmony where our douce capital’s statues are concerned. The debate over whether Viscount Melville – defender of slavery and alleged embezzler of naval revenues–- should be removed from his St Andrew’s Square column is settled. His shortcomings will be disclosed on a nicely designed interpretation panel while he stays aloft.
There have been other disputes. Lord Provost, and later MP, Adam Black, a radical Whig who spurned a knighthood, drew much conservative opposition to his likeness being placed between high Tories Christopher North and Sir Walter Scott, the former whose matinee idol good looks are crowned with flowing locks, the latter whose statue-encrusted Gothic skyrocket is the world’s largest monument to a writer. The controversies continue. Plans are afoot to dwarf Sir Walter’s spire with a 300 ft statue of Harry Potter on Cramond Island to greet airborne tourists in the manner of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, though the latter is less than a third of the insufferable boy wizard’s height.
This introduces another bone of contention – why ‘honour’ an author by depicting his or her best known character, rather than the creator. True, there are many Souter Johnnies and Meg Merrilies scattered around, but these are an addition to, rather than a substitute for, their authors. The book valiantly explores this dichotomy in Holmesian depth, detailing, for example, the exhaustive efforts of sculptor Gerald Laing to arrive at a solution for his statue of his Sherlock which, in the end, seemed to come down to two words: Basil Rathbone.
The fictional depiction syndrome dates to 1912 when Kensington’s statue of Peter Pan materialised overnight, without ceremony. Further replicas in Canada, America, Australia and Belgium, reaped many royalties for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Obviously, when the cause is a noble one, it’s churlish to complain.
But that exercise was planned and paid for by JM Barrie. No such excuse applies with Edinburgh’s Sherlock Holmes, or the ‘Kidnapped’ group near Western Corner. Stevenson and Conan Doyle had no say in the matter, being dead. Neither existed in effigy in their native city, though a sculpture of Stevenson would later be unveiled by Ian Rankin in Colinton Village. Holmes and Kidnapped are works by artists of the highest rank, yet they commemorate the writers’ inventions, rather than the men themselves, a curiously depersonalizing homage.
Admittedly, Gerald Laing, who cast Sherlock Holmes in his foundry at Kinkell Castle, went on to represent a living person on his bas-relief of ‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’ on Standard Life’s George Street building. As one learns from Public Sculpture in Edinburgh, one of the foolish virgins was none other than the singer and author Patti Smith, a friend of Laing’s from his New York days. Laing himself told your reviewer that he and Smith had argued over some obscure point of spirituality, and in replicating the cover of her Radio Ethiopa album he was not so much paying homage, as expressing his annoyance!
Statues and memorials tell us much about a country’s attitude to its sons and daughters. Edinburgh has few daughters depicted, but it does have several female sculptors. The statue of George III in Register House, for example, is by Anne Damer, who was encouraged by David Hume. Amelia Hill, wife of photographer DO Hill, sister of painter Joseph Noel Paton, and sculptor of her friend David Livingstone, was esteemed as an artist in her own right, as was Ottilie MacLaren Wallace, who was trained by Pittendreigh MacGillivray and went on to work with Auguste Rodin. Mary Grant was responsible for an impressive crucifixion tableau in St Mary’s Cathedral, while Phyllis Bone and Mary Syme Boyd were successful 1930s architectural sculptors.
The who’s in, who’s out list isn’t simply a gender issue of course. Edinburgh’s New Town was the wonder of its age, but there is no memorial – other, of course, than the townscape itself – to its creator James Craig. He was even buried in an unmarked grave. Scotland’s greatest architect, Robert Adam, is also conspicuous by the absence of any statue, though this is hardly surprising, given his scandalous under-representation in our national collections, at least until the V&A brought up a bit of London’s Northumberland House to Dundee. Is this an institutional lacuna or an institutional vendetta? Who can tell?
It seems unfortunate, too, that James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd has no Edinburgh statue, though he has a magnificent one in Selkirkshire. Some years ago I was informed that there was a Hogg statue on the grounds of the University of Texas, at Austin. On looking into this, I discovered that it represented James Stephen Hogg, first native born Governor of Texas, and son of a confederate general. For better or worse, Governor Hogg’s bulky on-campus presence was destined to fall foul America’s monument wars, in which no less a cultural authority than President Donald J Trump declared himself ‘sad’ over the removal of ‘our beautiful statues’.
In any event, Governor ‘Big Jim’ Hogg, who has long kept Austin’s students amused because he cruelly named two of his daughters Ima and Ura, was moved into storage in 2017, following Charlottesville’s white-supremacist ‘unite the right’ rally in which a counter-demonstrator was killed and others injured. The controversy did not end there, however, for Austin’s university authorities have since decided to re-instate him.
It makes our own misgivings about statues and monuments seem sedate, by comparison, though we do have a rather fine piece of sculpted Americana – Europe’s first memorial to Abraham Lincoln, by George Bissell of New York. This Calton graveyard treasure was commissioned by the then American consul, Wallace Bruce, who also had a plaque fixed to Thomas the Rhymer’s tower in Earlston, and was responsible for statues of Robert Burns and Walter Scott in Manhattan’s Central Park. Nothing contentious there, let’s hope.