A Monumental Endeavour
Edinburgh’s statues and monuments are amongst the city’s most distinctive and precious assets, often taking centre stage and significantly contributing to the rich and complex character of the Old and New Towns World Heritage Site. In 2007 a unique project was set out to preserve these landmarks for future generations to enjoy. The Twelve Monuments Project was a joint initiative between Edinburgh World Heritage (funded in part by Historic Environment Scotland) and the City of Edinburgh Council.
Over several years work was carried out at the Bow Well in the Grassmarket; the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square; the Black Watch memorial on the Mound; the Buccleuch memorial in Parliament Square; the National Monument, Nelson Monument and Burns Monument on Calton Hill; the statues to Adam Black, Professor Wilson and David Livingstone in Princes Street Gardens; the equestrian statue of King Charles II in Parliament Square and St Bernard’s Well by the Water of Leith in Stockbridge.
Each monument or statue brought its own set of challenges. The statue of Lord Melville, for example, sits on a column over 41 metres high, partly modelled on Trajan’s Column in Rome. Here, a special form of scaffolding known as a ‘crows-nest’ had to be built around the top of the column to enable safe access to work on the statue. At the National Monument the challenge was to move one of the massive stone lintels back into place, reputedly the largest blocks of stone ever quarried in Scotland. On other occasions though, the task was more delicate.
The Nelson Monument project not only involved repairs to its stone tower, but also the restoration of its time ball. This sits on top of the tower and was designed to drop at 1pm as a time signal for ships’ captains moored in the Forth. This surprisingly light and delicate wooden structure had to be very carefully lifted from the top of the tower by crane, to be taken away for specialist conservation work. Replacing the restored time ball was an equally tricky manoeuvre.
The Twelve Monuments project also supported traditional skills, as with the conservation of the Burns Monument. This building commemorates Scotland’s National poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), and is modelled on the ancient Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. It is a highly ornate building with a central cylindrical structure or ‘cella’, which rises up through the colonnade to be capped with a domed roof with intricate stone carvings and winged lion sculptures. However much of this decoration had been worn away because of its exposed position on the side of Calton Hill overlooking the Old Town. This set the stonemasons a great challenge of carving by hand elaborate details such as the legs of a tripod and a wing for one of the lions, a much more demanding task than is often the case with conservation projects.
Volunteers were involved in many of the individual projects, helping to engage the local community. Young people training with the Future Jobs Fund got involved with the conservation of three bronze statues in Princes Street Gardens. The fund offered work experience to young school leavers who had not found work, increasing their awareness of employability skills and possible career paths. With their help, each of the statues were cleaned before a specialist treatment was applied to stabilise any corrosion, and finally the bronze was re-patinated and a new layer of wax applied to protect it.
Another opportunity presented itself during the work to St Bernard’s Well. This monument is modelled on the ancient Roman temple of Vesta in Tivoli, and a key part of the project was the repair of its domed roof. Closer examination of the decorative pine cone on top of the roof revealed traces of a primer used to provide a stable base for applying gold leaf. Two special donations enabled the pine cone to be re-gilded.
The project also revealed new aspects of each monument, perhaps most importantly with the statue to King Charles II. It is one of the oldest lead statues in the UK, dating back to 1685, and was carefully dismantled and taken away for conservation in October 2010. Once in the conservator’s workshop it could be examined in detail both inside and outside. As the statue is hollow, it has an internal armature to provide support. This had clearly been repaired many times in the past, often not very successfully. There had been much speculation amongst art historians that the statue could be attributed to Grinling Gibbons, the celebrated sculptor and woodcarver who sculpted a nearly-identical one at Windsor Castle. The conservators were able to examine both in detail, and it became obvious that the Edinburgh example had lost some features over the years. Having studied the Edinburgh and Windsor statues their firm conclusion was that both came from the same mould.
Key to each project has been a fundraising campaign, generating not only the necessary funds but also demonstrating public support for the monuments. Around a third of the cost of each project came in the form of donations from charitable trusts, businesses, institutions and the general public. Overall, a total of £302,375 was raised, clearly showing the importance that ordinary Edinburgh residents place on these historic monuments and statues, which form a backdrop to their everyday lives.
The Twelve Monuments Project was an extremely rare undertaking for a historic city in the UK. The project proved to be a great example of partnership working, bringing together the local authority with a heritage charity, specialists in the field of conservation and the local community. The public support that the project received showed that whatever the intentions of the original instigators, people today value these monuments and statues as part of the fabric of the city, something to take pride in and pass on to future generations.