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About 'The Stairwell Project'

Richard Wright is best known for the fact that he paints on walls rather than on canvases and that, despite their beauty and complexity and all the extreme effort that goes into their creation, his works are usually painted over at the end of an exhibition.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art decided several years ago that they would like to commission Wright to make a major wall-painting in one of the public (rather than exhibiting) areas of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two and to make it permanent rather than temporary. This has now been realised thanks to support from the Scottish Government’s Expo Fund.

  • The Stairwell Project (10) The Stairwell Project (10), by Richard Wright
  • No Title (05.10.09) 2009 No Title (05.10.09) 2009, by Richard Wright

The painting in the west stairwell of Modern Two is the largest and most complex permanent work by Wright so far and the only one in Scotland. Wright won the Turner Prize in 2009 with a gold-leaf painting whose stunning beauty captivated the public imagination and gained great critical acclaim. This work was always destined to disappear after the Turner Prize exhibition finished. It is fitting that Scotland, where Wright trained and where he lives, now has a permanent example of his work.

  • Richard Wright Stairwells Project install 49 Richard Wright Stairwells Project install 49, by Richard Wright
  • Installing 'The Stairwell Project' Installing 'The Stairwell Project', by Richard Wright
  • Richard Wright Stairwells Project install 62 Richard Wright Stairwells Project install 62, by Richard Wright

The organic shape that Wright has used in The Stairwell Project recalls a bud or flower, like the fleur-de-lys patterning on medieval buildings. By painting them black, he has made these delicate shapes take on a new ‘gothic’, even menacing aspect. The choice of the flower-like motif is inspired by the honeysuckle design of the original, circular decoration on the ceiling of the stairwell. In addition, the rows and rows of delicate organic shapes make one mindful of the generations of orphans who climbed and descended the stairs of the building when it used to be an orphanage, the Dean Orphan Hospital. That is what Wright means when he talks about architecture not being simply a physical building, but its history, its present function, the life within. In this light the black buds/flowers take on more ominous connotations of disease, sickness and death.

  • Dean Orphan Hospital Sick Room Dean Orphan Hospital Sick Room, by unknown
  • Dean Orphan Hospital Sewing Room Dean Orphan Hospital Sewing Room, by unknown

Wright repeats the flower-like motif, but changes its orientation, its size and alignment according to where it is placed on the complex three-dimensional structure of the stairwell. The stairwells of Modern Two are the building’s most notable architectural feature, both from the outside and within. Indeed, they are quite overwhelming. Coming from the narrow and relatively dark main corridor of the ground floor, one is struck by how light-filled and monumental they are. They have a clerestory just below the ceiling that lets in huge amounts of light. At the same time the walls and windows of this feature lean inwards, giving the effect that the stairwell towers are about to collapse – under the impact of the light, wind and outside world in general.

  • The Stairwell Project (17) The Stairwell Project (17), by Richard Wright
  • The Stairwell Project (58) The Stairwell Project (58), by Richard Wright

The stairwells provide a constant reminder of the natural world beyond the confines of the building, hence the brilliant choice of the flower motif by Wright. The complex architecture of the clerestory, with its square ceiling and round decorative feature, its window surrounds the corners of the walls and the large cornice beneath: these are all covered with rows and rows of buds/flowers, but by no means in a uniform manner. In the four corners of the walls Wright has created nodal points from which curved lines-waves-of black shapes radiate outwards. It is in this area that the shapes are smallest and closest together. Like iron filings reacting to a magnetic force, the shapes create patterns that point to the natural forces that underlie all reality. Indeed, as modern physics has shown, matter is made up solely of energy (just as light is). Substance is, if not an illusion, then simply the way that we and other sentient beings perceive the world.

Thomas Hamilton’s Dean Orphan Hospital is one of Edinburgh’s finest buildings with a long history of different uses. Wright has now produced a fitting work of art to commemorate that history and to point it forward into the future.



A stylized lily (in French, fleur means flower, and lis means lily) or iris that is used as a decorative design or symbol.

Windows which are above normal ceiling height and project into roofline, especially in the nave, transept and choir of a church or cathedral.

A distinctive element in a work of art or design.