Throughout Edinburgh's city centre are a vast number of public artworks and sculptures, many of them dating back decades and even centuries. In introducing visitors to the city to some of these prominent city features, one name becomes a recurring motif; just as many of the city's buildings have the same architects or builders names attached to them, so many of the most iconic sculptures in the city share a common artist: Sir John Steell.
Steell grew up in Edinburgh, and rose through the ranks of notable artists produced by the city's venerable arts academies. In the 1830s he achieved public recognition with his first major commission for the city, a carving of Alexander the Great taming his horse, Bucephalus. A popular story is told that although Steell produced the carving in the 1830s, the statue was not formally cast in bronze for nearly fifty years, as the city council hadn't acquired sufficient funds to complete payment for the work.
Angered by not being paid his full fee, it is said that Steell remodelled the head of the horse shortly before it was cast, giving Alexander's great horse the ears of a pig! Today the statue (with its diminutive ears) stands outside the city's council chambers on the Royal Mile, a testament to the 'pig's ear' they made of the commission all those years ago.
There are other significant works by Steell in Edinburgh's city centre - here are four which often feature in my city tours...
Sir Walter Scott
The monument to Edinburgh-born writer and lawyer Walter Scott features within it a large representation of Scott, seated, and with his dog Maida curled at his feet. The monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp, but it was Steell who created the figure of the artist himself.
The memorial to Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, was commissioned by Victoria after Albert's death, intended as a means of honouring her dead husband and preserving his memory. It is said that Steell so accurately captured the likeness of Albert, and presented him so sympathetically, that upon its official unveiling in 1876 Queen Victoria took it upon herself to knight him on the spot. Today the monument stands in the middle of Charlotte Square.
The success of Steell's sculpture of Albert was not replicated in a sandstone carving he produced of Queen Victoria herself, seated and holding a grand jewelled sceptre. When this particular carving was unveiled to HMQ at Buckingham Palace in London it is said that she disapproved so strongly of the likeness that she asked her staff to take the statue and put it where nobody would be able to see it. The carving duly ended up on top of the grand entrance to the Royal Scottish Academy gallery building in the middle of Edinburgh's main street, Princes Street! Keep an eye out for her as you visit the shops - she looks pretty disapproving even to this day...
The Duke of Wellington
Steell produced a number of statues of Britain's great commander of the armed forces which led the country to victory against the French at the Battle of Waterloo. At the east end of Princes Street is his iconic representation of Wellington mounted on his steed, Copenhagen, who rode into battle with him (and, presumably, out again). At its unveiling in 1852, the press were keen to play on Wellington's honourary nickname, dubbing the monument 'the Iron Duke, in bronze, by Steell'.
To find out more about Sir John Steell's iconic sculptures, join me for an Up-Close and Personal Tour of the city!
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.