Elsie Inglis statue campaigners should defuse controversy by running open and fair contest - Brian Ferguson

In a city where huge conflict over the most bizarre issue never seems to be far away, a plan to create the first statue of a woman on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile was probably always going to run into trouble at some point.

A campaign to create a memorial to medical pioneer Elsie Inglis on Edinburgh's Royal Mile has become embroiled in controversy since royal sculptor Alexander Stoddart was announced as the designer of the tribute.
A campaign to create a memorial to medical pioneer Elsie Inglis on Edinburgh's Royal Mile has become embroiled in controversy since royal sculptor Alexander Stoddart was announced as the designer of the tribute.

Yet there has been a deeply uncomfortable tone to the debate over the rights and wrongs of abandoning an official competition to find an artist for a memorial to Elsie Inglis in favour of asking royal sculptor Alexander Stoddart to do the job.

There was little sign of an impending stooshie when an open call to artists – “both established and emerging” – was launched in July.

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A conspiracy theorist could frankly have a field day with the subsequent events.

An image of Dr Elsie Inglis was projected onto St Giles' Cathedral earlier this year as part of a campaign to see her honoured with a statue on the Royal Mile.
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That is partly down to the vague and unsatisfactory explanations given by the trustees - for not only suspending the competition a few weeks after its launch but then appointing Stoddart a month before the shortlist was due be revealed and a good six months before the winning design was expected.

If the trustees thought that the artists who had worked on submissions and all of its supporters would universally welcome Stoddart's sudden coronation they had a very rude awakening.

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At best, they are guilty of a serious misjudgment at a crucial juncture for a campaign that has taken five years to get to that point.

At worst, the campaign has been hijacked by a combination of cultural snobbery and high-handed arrogance over the use of public donations.

A mealy-mouthed apology seems to have done little but to inflame the situation further thanks to an accompanying insistence that the project will be proceeding with Stoddart, even though unanswered questions are still stacking up.

A key issue is who it was that instigated the approach to Stoddart?

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Was the involvement of a former Lord Provost, Frank Ross, who would have met the new King on numerous occasions, a key factor?

And where does the controversy leave the city council, which enthusiastically supported and promoted the original competition, and will have to decide on a planning application.

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It seems inconceivable that Edinburgh-born Stoddart was not previously considered to be a contender – and downright bizarre that he only, apparently, came into the frame after the death of the Queen.

Stoddart already has numerous statues in the city, including David Hume and Adam Smith on the Royal Mile, while William Henry Playfair and James Clerk Maxwell are relatively recent additions to Chambers Street and George Street.

There are clear connections between Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and Stoddart’s role as the King’s Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland. But this cannot mean other artists should be excluded from opportunities to work there.

This week’s pronouncements give the clear impression that the campaign is going to stick with Stoddart and attempt to weather the criticism, rather than try to defuse a situation which, by their own admission, has left the trustees in the firing line for abuse and intimidation.

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But the fact that Stoddart has had so many commissions for the historic thoroughfare is a pretty compelling reason for the Elsie Inglis campaign to choose someone else.

At the very least, there should be an open, fair and transparent re-run competition, with a level playing field, decided by an expanded and diverse panel of judges.

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