I’m just back from an amazing hard-hat tour of the Portrait Gallery led by the Clerk of Works Sandy Cameron and Programme Manager (and fellow blogger) Robert Galbraith. It’s the first time I’ve been back inside since vacating our offices last August, and what a transformation! After being kitted out with all the safety gear (not the most stylish of attire) we are led through the familiar and yet now somehow unfamiliar spaces, thick with brick dust and rubble or crammed with tangled scaffolding.
I’d come with a purpose in mind, to see if I could get up close to some of the stone statues that adorn the outside of the building. I’ve always loved them standing up there so silently, watching over us and the city as we go about our daily lives. I often wonder what they can see up there and what episodes of Scottish history have played out below them on Queen Street, or in the Firth of Forth, over the years. I’ve also wondered who they are, why they were chosen and who made them?
I was delighted therefore when we began our steep climb up the rickety galvanised steel staircase, up and up the levels of scaffolding on our way to the rooftop, passing the statues, looking as if they might just step out of their niches and start to wander about the gantries. Close up they are even more magnificent and uncannily lifelike with some exquisite details: buckled shoes, beautifully carved, braided hair such as that of Queen Margaret who holds a perfect model of Dunfermline Abbey in her stone hand and perhaps the most haunting detail, the heart-shaped casket that hangs around the neck of Sir James Douglas who wore Bruce’s ‘brave’ heart, according to his dying wish, in battle against the Saracens in Spain.
When the gallery opened in 1889, Architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson’s vision for the building was incomplete. All the statue niches had been left empty. The board finally gave way and accepted his proposal, but it took a further 17 years for all the statues to be carved by a range of Scottish sculptors, including James MacGillivray and John and William Birnie Rhind, and placed in position. The final figure of Scottish surgeon John Hunter, completed the building in 1906.
Of course there were arguments over who should be represented and the list was inevitably very much a compromise. Interestingly they chose not to include any contemporary figures, the selection being mainly from Scottish history and literature from the Medieval period up to the 17th century with a scattering of Enlightenment figures (David Hume, James Hutton and Adam Smith). Then there was the problem of funding. The architectural project had largely been funded by John Ritchie Findlay, the owner of The Scotsman, while the statue project relied on a public funding campaign, which was not very successful. At the time the average cost for each statue was £200, which was not prohibitive, so it is likely that public benefactors weren’t too keen on some of the choices of subject. In the end Findlay paid for the remaining figures and I for one am extremely glad that he did!
From an educational perspective, there is one last twist to this story. You may have noticed that although some bear the sculptor’s name, there are no inscriptions to identify who the statues represent. So, apart from a few characters that you might be able to recognise, future generations are left wondering. Both Rowand Anderson and Findlay wanted the sculptures to have names and dates of birth and death, but this never happened as Rowand Anderson and The Office of Works simply couldn’t agree on an appropriate form of lettering.
Perhaps only now, over one hundred years later, do we have a chance to put this right? Let me know what you think.