Alexander Stoddart sculpture unveiled in Edinburgh

Alexander Stoddart's sculpture is lifted into place. Picture: John McKenzie
Alexander Stoddart's sculpture is lifted into place. Picture: John McKenzie
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SCOTLAND’S leading sculptor has unveiled a major new piece of work - towering on top one of Edinburgh’s leading cultural attractions.

Alexander Stoddart, who was appointed an official sculptor to the Queen five years ago, was commissioned to produce a brand new work depicting Clio, the goddess of history from Greek mythology, for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

It is the first significant work of art to be added to the front of the landmark building since the Victorian era.

Stoddart was first approached 10 years ago by the then director of the portrait gallery, James Holloway, about creating a new sculpture for the apex of the gallery, on Queen Street, to replace a long-removed original.

It was hoped the project would have been completed in time for the unveiling of the £17.6 million refurbishment of the gallery, which was completed in December 2011.

But a lack of funds meant Stoddart, a Glasgow Art School graduate, did not actually get to start work on his “simple little figure”, as he has described the work, until around two years ago.

The £60,000 cost of the aluminium sculpture has been entirely met thorough a private bequest to the gallery. The donor had asked to remain anonymous.

An exhibition charting Stoddart’s work on the piece, including its creation at his Paisley studio and its casting at a foundry in the Black Isle, will open on Saturday at the gallery.

Standing at more than two metres tall, Stoddart’s work has replaced the previous sculpture of Clio, by artist William Birnie Rhind, which had been installed in 1893, just 11 years after the gallery opened its doors.

The Edinburgh-born sculptor is probably best known for his bronze sculpture of a fallen soldier at Fettes College, the Royal Scots Greys monument in Princes Street Gardens and the Black Watch memorial on The Mound.

However Stoddart said Rhind’s “History” sculpture had to be removed from the portrait gallery in the 1960s amid fears it was in danger of falling down because it was in such a state of disrepair.

Although the original had been kept in storage, the gallery decided to commission a replacement, as Rhind’s sculpture was found to be in such poor condition and “weathered beyond repair.”

The original designs of the sculpture and even a report in The Scotsman of its installation were taken into account in the new design, which Stoddart insisted should replicate the original - depicting one of Zeus’s nine daughters, or muses - with the female figure clutching a scroll and pen.

It is the Paisley-based artist’s latest major work in the capital city, following his striking sculptures of philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith, on the Royal Mile, and physicist James Clerk Maxwell, on George Street over the last two decades.

Edinburgh-born Stoddart, who visited the gallery to watch staff install the sculpture from a crane, told The Scotsman: “I’ve always loved the national portrait gallery, its original architect Sir Robert Anderson, was one of the greats of the era and was also the architect for Central Station in Glasgow, Mount Stuart on Bute and the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh.

“The absence of the original sculpture has felt to me like a long-term anomaly with the gallery and I actually started speaking to them about a new one a long time ago. It must be more than 10 years ago now, but the funds weren’t there until a couple of years ago.

“The original sculpture came down at in the 1960s as it was in danger of falling down. A new head was put on it, but it was a bit of a shocker, worse than the worst excesses of Easter Island, then it was removed completely.

“It was a tremendous commission to get. Architectural sculpture is the highest application of a sculptor’s art, which really started with what the Greeks did. This was a real opportunity to pay homage to some of the great artists of the 19th century. I can’t think of any of my work that is as high up as this.

“There was never any question of trying to do anything too different to what was there before. That would just have been vulgar and trite, although my sculpture is actually about an inch and a half smaller than the original one.

“It was a moment of redemption and completion to me when I saw it installed. I had a lovely feeling of settlement and conclusion.”

Christopher Baker, the current director of the gallery, said, “This wonderful new sculpture is sited serenely above the façade of the Gallery, both making a statement and being entirely sympathetic to its context – one of Scotland’s greatest nineteenth-century buildings. It is the first enrichment of this sort which has been installed on the gallery since the Victorian period.

“The related exhibition will illustrate in a compelling manner the extraordinary commitment that Alexander Stoddart made to this high profile commission.”