Things are looking up

King James without...
...and with head

A total of thirty historical figures decorate the outside of the neo-Gothic building designed by Robert Rowand Anderson. They are joined by a statue of Clio, the muse of History, by contemporary Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, standing at the top of the building above the entrance. Together they illustrate aspects of Scottish history, hinting at the purpose of the building itself, and commemorate figures which did not yet have their own monuments.

When the Portrait Gallery opened in 1889, the intention was to encourage patriotic Scots to fund the statues, which would gradually fill up the empty niches on the façade. This worked to some extent: a few private funders came forward. The Faculty of Actuaries sponsored David Watson Stevenson’s statue of mathematician John Napier of Merchiston (installed 1898). A committee led by women’s rights campaigner Sarah Mair gifted the group of Mary, Queen of Scots with her supporters the bishop John Lesley and the politician William Maitland by William Birnie Rhind (installed 1896).  

Sculpture of John Napier
Sculpture of Mary, Queen of Scots

But eventually, many of the statues had to be paid for by the Portrait Gallery’s main funder and owner of the Scotsman newspaper, John Richie Findlay, who died before the scheme was completed. The last statue, of anatomist John Hunter by James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, was finally installed in 1906, almost twenty years after the Gallery first opened. 

These commissions were also intended to provide opportunities for Scottish sculptors in the late nineteenth century. William Birnie Rhind, best known for his architectural sculpture and public monuments, was the main contributor. James Pittendrigh Macgillivray and David Watson Stevenson designed six statues each. Other artists included William Grant Stevenson, Archibald McFarlane Shannan, John Hutchison, Waller Hubert Paton, John Rhind, Charles McBride and Henry Snell Gamley. 

The (temporarily) headless king is a life-size sculpture of King James VI & I by David Watson Stevenson (installed in 1893). Like the rest of the building and the other statues, it is made from red Corsehill sandstone, a popular building material in the nineteenth century. It was quarried in Dumfriesshire, in the south-west of Scotland, and used in buildings as far away as New York.

Corsehill Quarry, Annan © Dumfries & Galloway Council

However, sandstone has a tendency to develop cracks, providing a route in for water which can then freeze and damage the stone. During the last year, conservators have mended the hairline cracks with colour-matched fills, and have repointed the eroded joints between the stone sections. They have also been inserting fixings to pin together the stone sections where necessary  – hence the temporary removal of King James’s head – and attaching brackets to further secure the figures within their niches.  

Up on the scaffolding, the conservators get to see details pedestrians down below only glimpse: the carefully carved words ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’ ('shame on him who thinks evil of it') on the garter below the knee of John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll (by David Watson Stevenson, installed 1903), or the lace pattern around the cuff of Cardinal David Beaton’s right hand (by Waller Hubert Paton, installed in 1903).

The weather and Edinburgh’s birds would chip away at these details if it weren’t for regular care, and netting in front of the statues. The statue of King James is now reunited with its head and ready for another five years, until the next treatment.

The garter below the knee of John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll
The cuff of Cardinal David Beaton’s right
By Liz Louis, Curator, European & Scottish Art & Portraiture, 11 February 2022