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Issue 88 - Artist In Residence: Alexander Stoddart

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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Artist In Residence: Alexander Stoddart

Roddy Martine visits Alexander Stoddart, Her Majesty the Queen's Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland

You can tell a lot about the status of a civilized people by the number of statues they have. As you grow up, you get to a point where you have to settle. You put up a monument, put a statue on top and dance around it.” In saying this, Alexander Stoddart, Her Majesty the Queen's Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland since 2008, confirms that he himself is firmly bedded down in the West of Scotland town of Paisley, in Renfrewshire, where he has remained since his parents relocated him there from Edinburgh as a boy. While his reputation bestrides Scotland into Europe and across the Atlantic into the USA, his two cavernous studios, which resemble stage sets for some momentous theatrical production, are to be found within the campus of the University of the West of Scotland, yet they are still in sight of the childhood home in which he still lives.

Surrounded by the stimulus of academic colleagues, he feels no need to live or work anywhere else. “I'm a hardy provincial,” he insists. “I can have Wagner in Paisley.” The genius of Richard Wagner and the teachings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (there is a photograph of the great man pinned to a studio door) are among his obsessions. “Wagner combined poetry, the visual arts and music with drama. What more could you want?” he reflects. “What Schopenhauer teaches us is to cease to become furious about the world and instead to become curious.” All the same, he remains uncompromising in his condemnation of modernism and the fashionable lack of sympathy with the past. “Glasgow has an iconoclasm in its soul,” he complains angrily. “The Council recently announced that they were thinking of removing all of the statues in George Square. Fortunately, this didn't happen.” Similarly, he decries the famous traffic cone placed on the head of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow's Exchange Square. “It's the need of the barbarian to traduce nobility. We are working against an innate iconophobia. Making statues of dead men that will be around for 1000 years is contrary to the activist trend.” Happily, there are several fantastical Stod- dart masterpieces to be found in Glasgow's Merchant City. For example, Italia, a glass reinforced polymer statue at the top of Ingram Street, symbolises Glasgow's Italian community, and the triangle of Mercury, Mercurius and Mercurial in front of the Italian Centre creates a dialogue between ancient lore and modern city life.

I ask him why there are so many monuments to great men and women throughout the world, while the names of the men or women who created them are so often ignored?

“It’s the Platonic culture of antiquity,” he reflects wistfully. “If somebody is good with his hands, he or she cannot be considered to be intellectual, so they don't matter. Seneca said that we admire the product but we despise the maker. But then Seneca lived in ancient Rome, where most sculptors would have been slaves.” “Show me his shoes covered with powder dust!” he announces proudly. Although modest by nature, being ignored is not a fate likely to befall Alexander Stoddart. Animated, hyper intelligent, engagingly talkative, it is easy to grasp why so many of his friends and admirers find him such mesmerizing and stimulating company.

“The greatest benefit to my life is that I kept reading,” he explains. That means Socrates, Confucius, Nietzsche, and the Bible, of course, which, having been raised in the Baptist Faith, he still consults daily. As an aside, he recommends a collection on the great philosophers by Karl Jaspers.

Such a complex wealth of accumulated knowledge inevitably finds its way into his roundels and tableaux. His father was a graphic designer and it soon becomes obvious where his intricate skills in anatomy and observation were honed. Symbols of his subject's preoccupations are encoded throughout his work. But never use the word 'figurative' to describe him. “I am a sculptor,” he says dogmatically.

Working primarily in clay within the neo- classical tradition, Stoddart is possibly best known for his civic monuments in Edinburgh – bronze statues of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith on the Royal Mile; the scientist James Clerk Maxwell on George Street; and, most recently, the architect William Playfair – the “young man who got Edinburgh into shape” – in front of the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.

On a plinth within a gateway on Edinburgh's Corstorphine Road stand the fictional figures of David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, taken from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Kidnapped. Before his death, Stevenson made it perfectly clear that he wanted no monument to himself, but this elegant coupling of the novelist's two heroes, on the approximate location where they took leave of each other on the road from Glasgow, is perhaps the finest tribute anyone could wish for. Further afield, one may find Alexander’s sculpture of John Knox Witherspoon, one of America's founding fathers, in both Paisley and Princeton, USA. For the walls in the two-storied entrance hall of the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London, he created architectural friezes interpreting Homeric themes in 20th Century Britain. In the Sackler Library at Oxford University is a bronze frieze that contrasts traditionalist and modernist values.

Work in progress currently to be found in his studios includes a study for an eight-foot high Joan of Arc destined for Longmuir University in Virginia, USA, and a series of plaques representing a collection of Russian River Gods: The Volga, The Don, The Western Dvina, The Northern Dvina, Kama and Oka. “Being brought up so close to the William Wallace monument at Elderslie, I developed a notion of chivalry early on,” Stoddart explains. “My school friends and I felt that we owed our allegiance to Wallace. So we all walked about with a childhood dream of being intimately connected to him and the deeds of the past.” “All of us are in pursuit of some kind of mystery,” he concludes. “It therefore makes sense to erect monuments to the dead, here in the territories of the living, death being the greatest mystery of all. That sense of being at one with the past has never deserted me.”

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