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The Civic Art of Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s civic art is a welcome departure from the Modernist eyesores in other cities.

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‘The Call’: the Scottish-American War Memorial by Robert Tait Mackenzie (Photo courtesy of the author)

In a recent piece for these pages, I considered The Embrace, a huge sculpture by the Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, inspired, according to its creator, by a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. embracing his wife Coretta. It was unveiled in early 2023 in Boston Common on the spot now called Freedom Plaza, where King made an impassioned speech in 1965. 

I asked at the time whether the sculpture worked as a piece of civic art, a memorial, or a celebration of human love and endeavor. I expressed doubts as to whether the employment of the limited language of Modernism could ever actually convey very much when compared to that of the classical tradition. The Embrace, I concluded, fell short of what might be expected of a monumental sculpture in a public place. 


I thought I might revisit a great classical city, Edinburgh, and describe the public commemorative art there that actually succeeds.

Adam Smith (Photo courtesy of the author)

First, at the top of the Royal Mile, in the shadow of the High Kirk of St. Giles, is a heroic seated bronze figure of the Scottish Enlightenment personality David Hume. Erected in 1997, it depicts Hume as an ancient Greek philosopher. The nobility, scale, artistry, and craftsmanship of the sculpture are obvious, and it stands out as a mighty success in terms of a piece of civic art. Indeed, it looks as though it has always been there, and although big, does not shout, intrude, disturb, or offend. Its scale is well-judged, and it positively contributes to the streetscape.

The creator of this magnificent statue is Alexander (“Sandy”) Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to His Majesty the King in Scotland. Stoddart was also responsible for two other fine statues in Edinburgh: those of Hume’s friend and contemporary, Adam Smith, and James Clerk Maxwell, a physicist whose work on electromagnetic theories of light and other matters contributed many modern developments. The Smith monument, also in the shadow of the High Kirk, was erected in 2008, and shows him standing, clad in the clothes of an 18th-century gentleman, with his right hand resting on a globe, suggesting both his concerns with global commerce and his trope, the invisible hand. 

Stoddart’s statue of James Clerk Maxwell in George Street (Photo courtesy of the author)

Stoddart’s Maxwell is situated on the main axis of George Street, just before it joins St. Andrew Square in the New Town, and is, perhaps, even more impressive than either his Hume or his Smith. The great man is shown seated and facing east toward Charlotte Square, in conventional Victorian clothes, a dog at his feet and color-wheel in his hands. On the plinth are bronze panels depicting experiments with light carried out by Isaac Newton and the space-time theory of Albert Einstein, but classicized in keeping with the sober dignity of the seated figure above. 

One of the panels is illustrated here: It shows Apollo firing a beam of light toward a prism atop a truncated obelisk held by Newton, so that the light is diffused. On the extreme right is Eos, the “rosy-fingered dawn,” standing on a rising sun. The panel on the other side of the plinth features Einstein holding a rubber-mat model of warped space-time.

Stoddart understands scale and is steeped in classical learning, so his work is rooted in historical and symbolic allusions, is full of meaning, and responds to, rather than disrupts, the urban fabric. And indeed Scotland is fortunate to have bred many fine sculptors in the past, one of whom, Alexander Handyside Ritchie, created a well-composed group set in a blind arch at the base of the tower of St. Cuthbert’s parish church commemorating Rev. David Dickson and his kindly work as a minister. Also in St. Cuthbert’s burying-ground is a fine Classicizing monument commemorating the Advocate, Robert Jameson, by the brilliant John Steell, the first Scots sculptor to achieve an international reputation without leaving his native land. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1876.

In West Princes Street Gardens are several impressive memorials. One of the best is the Scottish American War Memorial (1924–7) on the terrace below Princes Street. Known as “The Call,” it features a bronze kilted soldier seated in front of a long bas-relief of marching troops. A powerful composition of great poignancy, it was by the brilliant polymath Robert Tait Mackenzie, who was born in Canada and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Another war memorial of quality stands at the steep angle to the west of the Bank of Scotland headquarters to the officers and men of the Black Watch who fell during the Second Boer War. It features a bronze soldier on a tall plinth with Doric entablature and a bronze panel on the die showing the regiment charging in battle. Dating from 1908-10, the sculpture was built by William Birnie Rhind.

One more monument deserves mention here: the beautifully made red Peterhead granite pyramid designed by William Henry Playfair in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh, where many splendid sculptures may be enjoyed. It commemorates the judge and politician, Andrew Rutherfurd, Lord Rutherfurd, and his wife, Sophia Frances Stewart. The couple are commemorated on the handsome bronze door of the tomb, by John Steell.

All the monuments mentioned here have meaning, emotional content, respond to their settings, and are fluent in their coherent, sophisticated language. They are object lessons in what public, civic art should be.