Look up in Edinburgh streets to discover fine art

Linen Bank at 69 George Street has a grandly ornate doorway. Pic: Phil Wilkinson.
Linen Bank at 69 George Street has a grandly ornate doorway. Pic: Phil Wilkinson.
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FROM gargoyles to bas-relief, fine art adorns the buildings of Edinburgh. You just have to look up to see it.

I’ve lived in Glasgow for almost 18 years but don’t hold that against me. I spent my formative years in Edinburgh in what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. n October 2013 I published the book Look Up Glasgow, inspired by the outstanding, world-class architectural sculpture and decoration to be found “hidden in plain sight” at the tops of buildings throughout the Second City of the Empire. The book was a great success and, with a real passion for architectural heritage, forged while studying History and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh in the second half of the 1980s, I turned to Scotland’s capital city for further inspiration.

I was worried that I wouldn’t find enough to fill a whole book. Edinburgh’s appeal is the contrast of the sublime, reductive uniformity of the Georgian New Town with the austere but rather anarchic Scots Baronial of the Old Town. Although I lived in Edinburgh for the best part of eight years, I didn’t remember seeing much sculpture on buildings. How wrong I was.

Man has been making figurative sculpture for tens of thousands of years, ever since we learned to hold a stone axe. What it is that makes us want to capture and reimagine the world around us through art is something that has challenged art historians and philosophers for almost as long. But it’s my strong belief that architectural decoration, whatever form it takes, is a vital part of our relationship with our environment.

Buildings are not just walls and a roof. Architecture is a conversation between a structure, its surroundings and the people who exist within it – as Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud loves to say. And to my mind, sculpture and decoration help extend that conversation. They help people understand what a building means, help them respond to it in a unique and individual way. Most importantly, they help us form a relationship with our environment.

The great Italian design magnate Alberto Alessi believes that design falls into two categories, the sensual and the playful. Just look at his iconic kettles, lemon squeezers and corkscrews and you’ll see that, no matter which international design superstar is commissioned to create them, they all draw inspiration from either of these two ideas. In the same way, architectural decoration in Edinburgh can be interpreted through Alessi’s philosophy.

In terms of the sensual, my personal favourites while working on Look Up Edinburgh are as follows. Firstly, the grand sculpture programme of the north facing façade of the Scotsman building on North Bridge, overlooking Market Street. Designed by architects Dunn and Findlay at the turn of the last century, the centrepiece is the robed Peace by sculptor Frederick Schenck, although Atlas figures, two sculptures of Mercury and languid representations of Night and Day, inspired by Michelangelo, create a bold and joyful enough statement to match anything in Glasgow’s rich portfolio. I’d never noticed these before starting work on the book, so vertiginously high are they above street level, a shameful admission considering I lived round the corner in Cockburn Street for almost two years.

Secondly, I love the eroticism of the reclining nudes on the Usher Hall on Lothian Road. Created in 1910 and representing the Soul of Music and Musical Beneficence, these are two women completely at ease with their sensuality. Neither conform to today’s obsession with size-zero stick insects either. These are women you wouldn’t mess with.

Finally, I love the 1970s bronze reliefs of the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the side of the modern extension to Standard Life’s offices at 3-9 George Street. The original late-Victorian neo-classical building’s grand pediment uses the same subject matter, but the extension’s approach couldn’t be more different. It makes me laugh. The Wise Virgins are uniformly sensible and beautifully bare-breasted but the Foolish Virgins’ confusion and distress is straight out of a TV sitcom.

In terms of the playful, the greatest discovery I made during my research was what was originally known as Oddfellows’ Hall at 14 Forrest Road. In addition to a very worthy representation of Faith, Hope and Charity above the entrance to this former Freemasons’ Club, here is the best collection of comical gargoyles you’ll find in the city. Take time to stop and look up. There are several of them gurning and thumbing their noses at students naïve enough to pay £5 a pint in the bars below.

I also love the sheer volume of historical figures at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. Created by W Birnie Rhind over ten years between the 1880s and 90s, and akin to a kind of sculptural Ladybird book, there’s so much here to discover, from Bruce and Wallace to Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as a number of cheeky animal and dragon-inspired gargoyles.

Finally the former British Linen Bank at 69 George Street has some real gems too. Besides the grandly ornate doorway, try and find the scorpion, drawn from the zodiac, on the Frederick Street side.

Confession time: I admit that I love brutalist modern architecture. As a passionate collector of Danish mid-century furniture, I draw huge pleasure from the purity of style championed in the 1960s and 70s by companies such as Glasgow’s Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. I don’t agree with Prince Charles’s assertion that most of modern architecture is a “monstrous carbuncle”. However, I also love the crazy ebullience of buildings that have the confidence to use sculpture and ornament to entertain and educate those of us passing by on a daily basis. That many of these fabulous works of art have become damaged or corroded by pollution amounts to cultural vandalism.

But, for me, the real tragedy is that so many of us have become immune to the delights around and above us. We’re so focused on where we need to be next, or what we’re about to buy, that we forget to stop, look up and enjoy the fabulous wealth of stunning architectural heritage that surrounds us. So the next time you’re in the city centre remember my clarion call: Look Up Edinburgh.