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Issue 52 - Perfectly sculpted

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010

 

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Perfectly sculpted

Scotland Magazine readers domiciled in the UK will no doubt be familiar with the Angel of the North, the imposing statue which overlooks the town of Gateshead in England and which is the creation of the Turner prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley. This twenty metre tall steel angel with a wingspan of 54 metres across, caused a sensation when it was completed in 1998.

In June of this year, however, six smaller, but not entirely dissimilar, Gormley statues made their appearance in Edinburgh’s Water of Leith, the stream which runs from the Pentland Hills to the south of Scotland’s Capital city and spills out into the Firth of the Forth at Leith Docks to the north. Their arrival was heralded with equal excitement, provoking a lady resident to telephone the police to complain that there was a naked man in the river close to her home. She had presumably not noticed the gentleman was covered in rust.

Commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland, with funding from various organisations such as the Art Fund and Henry Moore Foundation, the project features six life-sized figures, the first of which is buried up to its chest at the entrance to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The remaining five are positioned along a three mile stretch of water.

Thirty five years have passed since I was invited by the Edinburgh businessman Mayer Oppenheim to join a committee he was forming with Edinburgh City Council to create a walkway the length of the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s forgotten river, “a silver thread in a ribbon of green.” By 1975, having in the Victorian era accommodated a string of working mills from Colinton to Bonnington, the waterway was silted up and had become a dumping ground for the city’s household waste. Through a collaboration between private capital and City Council resources, we not only created a fifteen mile footpath which made the river safe and accessible to the general public, but succeeded in cleaning it out to the extent that both trout and herons have returned. On the occasional hot sunny days you can even find swimmers in the pool behind the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Having completed the footpath in 2000, the Water of Leith Walkway Trust handed over its responsibilities to the millennium funded Water of Leith Conservation Trust, but before doing so, we commissioned local Edinburgh sculptor Stan Wilson to create a bronze otter, which can be seen under the Dean Bridge, and a duck, at St Bernard’s Well.

Ten years ago, I was also among those who subscribed to have the passing of our friend Sandy Irvine Robertson, founder of the Scottish Business Achievement Trust, commemorated in Leith by the Clackmannanshire-based sculptor Lucy Poett. On the waterfront beside the Malmaison Hotel, you will notice a bulky figure seated on a wrought iron bench. A larger than life personality when alive, I am happy to report that, as in life, he is rarely without company, and he has now become a Leith visitor attraction in his own right. Sandy would have loved that.

When asked to comment on his latest work, Antony Gormley observed that it is a very modest addition to an extraordinary collection of such cultural installations in Scotland. How right he is. Those who have driven the M8 to Glasgow over the last decade will have noticed the stainless steel horn created by Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, the Big Heads by Royal Academician David Mach, and Andy Scott’s four-metre Heavy Horse and giant Red Stag.

Andy Scott is also the chosen sculptor for the forty-foot suspended image of “Big Yin” Billy Connolly playing his guitar which is to overlook the Clydeside Expressway, and the West of Scotland is already well served with such imagery. Woodlands Road in Glasgow’s West End boasts a tribute to the legendary Sheriff Lobbie Dosser of Calton Creek astride his horse Effie, the fictional creation of cartoonist Bud Neill.

In the Highlands, at Helmsdale in Sutherland, Gerald Ogilvy Laing, creator of the Sherlock Holmes statue in Edinburgh’s Picardy Place, has unveiled a fine memorial to the Highland Clearances, not only a reminder of what took place, but “a great example of the skill and vision of those who remain.” To my mind, these wonderful artworks carry our hopes and aspirations into the future. Think about it. A thousand years from now our descendants may well be enthusing at the naked men in the Water of Leith in much the same way as we marvel at China’s Terracotta Army