John Steell, father and son, sculptors

High Art and Advertising

        On the 1st August 1827 the North British Fire and Life Insurance Company, petitioned the Edinburgh Dean of Guild Court (the planning authority of the time) to build an Ionic portico for their premises at No. 1, on the east side of Hanover Street.[1] Their office, a converted Edinburgh town house, stood on a prime position on the corner with Princes Street, opposite the Royal Institution building, where the Scottish Academy had, in February that year, begun to hold their annual exhibitions. Princes Street was the main shopping and promenading thoroughfare of the city and the Insurance Company’s office was at the hub of the carriage trade that also made its way down the Mound towards Princes Street from the Old Town. The drawing accompanying the petition to the Court is probably by Robert Wright (d.1839), the Company architect from 1809 and it shows the porch surmounted by an achievement of the Royal Arms. (Figure 1) The limitation of his design is that it could only be fully appreciated from the front, in Hanover Street. No doubt with this in mind the Company applied to the Court again on the 2nd June 1828 to modify the design, creating a four columned portico,  topped off with a life-sized figure of St. Andrew.[2]  The new design made clever use of the site, which caught the sun for the best part of the day, most specifically during the all important evening promenade along Princes Street, a feature of Edinburgh street life that has since disappeared. (Figure 3)

        The second design, like the first, is unsigned but it is inscribed ‘9 Circus Place’, the address of the architect, James Raeburn (1787-1851) who came from near Banff in the north of Scotland and was appointed First Clerk to the Scottish Office of Works, in 1827.[3] Raeburn’s drawing is delicately executed in pen and ink with very soft washes to indicate shadow. His handling of the pen, especially in the neo-classical wreaths on either side of the entablature, is in marked contrast to the much more robust depiction of St. Andrew, clearly in another hand. The figure is in confident pen work and very effective pale grey washes. (Figure 2).

        The image of Saint Andrew, the fisherman and first missionary apostle, sent a subtle message about insurance that in addition, tapped into an embryonic Scottish nationalism. Saint Andrew was of course the patron Saint of the Scots, but also of the Greeks and curiously, the sense of Scottish nationalism that developed from c.1820, found expression in Greek architecture and sculpture and culminated in the attempt to re-create the Parthenon on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh. The Scots empathised with the plucky Greeks in their war against the Turks, which had reached a critical point in 1826 with Britain demanding a measure of Greek autonomy. When the Sultan refused the Ottoman fleet was sunk in Navarino Bay in 1827. The watercolour painter Hugh Williams (1773-1829), who had travelled widely in the Levant between 1816 and 1818, heightened public awareness of these events in Scotland. His exhibitions of large Greek views in Edinburgh in 1822 and 1826 encouraged the translation of nationalist feeling into architecture, particularly in relation to the National Monument and fund-raising days for the monument were set aside during his exhibitions.

        The figure of St. Andrew had been exhibited at the Scottish Academy in February 1827 as a ‘Colossal statue in Wood, for the North British Fire and Life Insurance Corporation’.[4] It is the earliest recorded work by John Steel junior (1804-1891), a young man who would rise to be one of the most successful sculptors in Scotland, executing important statues of Sir Walter Scott in Carara marble for the Scott Monument (1838) and The Duke of Wellington (1852) in bronze. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1876 at the unveiling of the bronze Prince Consort Memorial in the centre of Charlotte Square, and it seems likely that the figure of St. Andrew in James Raeburn’s design is by him and if so this is his earliest recorded drawing. The sculpture itself, which survives in the Dalkeith Kilwinning Lodge, is an imaginative re-working of the brightly painted wood or metal figures carved by his father as shop signs, but it was much more sophisticated than the tradition from which it emerged.[5]  Having been painted to resemble stone, this was the earliest use of free-standing sculptural decoration on such a scale, to a public building in Edinburgh. (Figures 4-6). 

        John Steell junior had been serving an apprenticeship with his father as a carver and gilder when in February 1820 he sent a petition to the Board of Trustees for promoting Arts and Sciences. He pointed out that he had "...already been favoured by your Honours by having been two years at your Academy for Drawing under the tuition of your professor, Mr. Wilson but which time has been wholly occupied in drawing from the flatt. But as it would be of esicencial service to him in the prosecution of his bisiness in the art of carving to have the advantage of being instructed in drawing from the round" he asked if he could continue as a student. On the 24th May 1824, he wrote to the Board of Trustees again,

        "That your petitioner is aged 20 years, and about four years ago enjoyed the benefit of the tuition of Mr. Wilson the professor of Drawing in the academy but from distress at that time was unable to make that progress which otherwise he would have done. But as it would still be of great advantage to him in the way of his Bisiness, if your Honours would grant him the privilege of again becoming a Pupil in the academy for Drawing and Modelling from the casts".[6] The figure of St Andrew is testament that his time spent ‘drawing from the flat’ was not entirely wasted for it is based on a print, probably from Plate 158 of Domenico de Rossi’s Raccolta Di Statue Antiche E Moderne, published in 1704. (Figure 4).

        The choice of Francis Duquesnoy’s dramatic marble of St Andrew as a model, standing as it does in St. Peter’s in Rome, was an unusual one for a Scottish high street and it raises interesting questions about meaning. Andrew Wilson (1780-1848) had spent time in Italy and taught in England before taking up the post as Master of the Trustees Academy in 1818 and it may be assumed, as the young Steell mentioned him by name, that he had considerable influence over his student. But it must also be remembered that the shop sign tradition from which the St Andrew sprang, toyed with public sentiment as a means of attracting attention. For all its exotic and colourful jollity, Steel senior’s Moor Smoking a Pipe of 1835 (like the tobacconists favourite figure, the American Indian) pushed the boundaries of good taste in relation to smoking and the despised Turk. As a consequence and despite its size and originality, Steell’s first work met with a resounding silence and attracted no attention in The Scotsman reviews of the 1827 Academy exhibition. This is in marked contrast to the way the young sculptor was feted by the same paper in January 1832 when his plaster cast of Alexander and Bucephalus was described as his ‘first work’.[7] The public was clearly confused. Was the St Andrew art or was it advertising? Was a work based on a print after the disgraced homosexual, Francis Duquesnoy just too much for a knowledgeable audience? Or was it that the Baroque, catholic flamboyance of the figure simply embarrassed an audience imbued with the northern protestant ethic? The critical response probably represents an attitude that thought, if nothing good could be said of the work then perhaps better to say nothing at all. Remarkably, it was not until February 1829 that a reviewer in the Edinburgh Literary Journal finally noticed the work and its significance:

‘We have nowhere seen any notice taken of the large statue of St. Andrew, carved in oak, but painted to resemble stone, which has been recently erected over a portico, at the foot of Hanover Street. We have been surprised at this for it is a striking and spirited production, and we are happy to be able to inform Mr. Steele (whose work it is) that this is the opinion of some of the best judges in Edinburgh.’[8]

        Clearly, 1827 was an important moment for Sculpture in Scotland. In August, the architect George Smith (1793-1877) in a lecture to the School of Arts (where John Steell senior taught carving) had recommended the union of architecture and sculpture, noting that sculpture was ‘an art form little known in Scotland [but] was now beginning to be patronised among us’.[9] In the same month the massive figure of Lord Melville by Robert Forrest (1789-1852) after Francis Chantry, arrived in the City from the artist’s quarry on the west coast and was assembled on top of a giant Doric column in St. Andrew Square. The Scotsman reported on both of these events, marking the first stirrings of an interest by the newspaper that would do much to shape the public perception sculpture in Scotland in the nineteenth century. Their failure to acknowledge the St. Andrew is thus significant and research for this article suggests that the reasons may have been more than art-historical, as discussed above. John Steell's father had been declared bankrupt in 1819 but the circumstances surrounding his financial embarrassment and the younger Steell’s ‘distress’ in 1820, have never been fully explained.

        John Steell junior was the fourth child of John Steell (1779-1849)[10] a carver, gilder and print-seller from Aberdeen who had married Margaret Gourlay in Dundee on the 3rd October 1797. John junior was born in Aberdeen on the 18th September 1804. The family settled in Edinburgh from 1806 and a further nine children were born there, seven before 1819. He had premises at 2 Low Calton in 1810-11 and a house at No. 5 Calton Hill and in 1812 John senior joined the Incorporated Trades of the Calton in order that he might carry on his trade in this area of the City. 

Aberdeen Journal 21 May 1806               Caledonian Mercury 2 August 1806

        Steell senior was made a freeman on the 6th August 1812, paying £20.6.8 [£527][11] ‘entry money and other dues’’[12] and he clearly flourished in his new surroundings for he was serving on his first committee by February and was made a Constable in May 1813. Four years later he was elected Convener or principal officer of the Incorporation. The elder Steell was also having success in his trade, moving to a shop at 34 Princes Street in 1814 while living in a small garret flat in Eldin Street in the same year. The shop was almost certainly rented from John Marnock junior (1787-1831), a carver and gilder who owned two  tenements with shops at 31 and 32 Princes Street. He too was in financial difficulties, being declared bankrupt in 1815. He held on to 32 Princes Street and sold off 31 to the Norwich Union Insurance Company, for a substantial sum. Important large–scale commissions such as the Royal Arms on the Leith Customs House (1813) and at the county hall in Cupar (un-dated) did much to establish John Steell's name. The style of these designs suggests that he was probably involved in the first proposal of the North British Fire and Life Insurance Company for their Hanover Street portico in August 1827. But Steell’s fortunes changed dramatically when he demitted office as Convener in May 1819 and was found to owe the Incorporation £1,727 2s 9d [£54,733]. For all his apparent success (or possibly because of it) he seems to have had few friends in the Incorporation and the new Convener, David MacGibbon called a special meeting on the 26th July 1819 to discuss the crisis. Surprisingly, two days later the Incorporation took legal proceedings against Steell in the Court of Session as a bankrupt. Terribly shamed by the action and by the social consequences of his perceived dishonesty, Steell did not put up a fight and a long list of creditors presented themselves as claimants. In some circumstances a bankrupt in Scotland had to wear a grey garment provided by his creditors and even if Steell did not have to comply with this onerous requirement, he certainly had to occupy rooms in a tenement near the sanctuary of Holyrood Abbey for a time. The difference between the amount oweing to him and the value of his property, when set beside the amounts he owed, stood at £5667/16/3 [almost £180,000] and the figures are recorded in detail in his sequestration papers in the Scottish Record Office.[13]

        The lists of items in his house that form part of these records make fascinating if poignant reading, with a ‘half carved hobby horse’ valued at 12/-. Everything in his shop and in the rooms above it, his property and stock-in-trade, is itemised with forensic detail and the lists provide an interesting insight into the day to day work of a carver and print seller. He had 156 dozen pencils of every level of hardness, 8 dozen colour pencils and 106 dozen black and red chalk pencils, followed in the list by ‘two damaged umbrellas’. Nine ‘stucco busts’, (presumably quite small) were valued at 5/- and reams of different papers lay alongside ‘one old camera obscura’. The quantities of timber make interesting reading with ‘wooden logs’ valued at £73.10 [£2,324], ‘plane tree wood’ at £6.3.11 and ‘lime tree wood’ at £52.13.1. He also had a stock of around 140 engraved plates ranging in size from 30”x 49” down to 10”x 8” but these were not identified as to subject and a carved achievement of the ‘kings arms in their present state’ was valued at £24. It’s not clear if this refers to an un-finished carving or the currency of the achievement. [14]

        John Steell was not a dishonest man but he was perhaps more than a little foolish. He knew full well, having served on the auditor’s committee that examined the accounts on the departure of his predecessor Samuel Wordsworth [1764-1842] that the Convener’s accounts had been in deficit for some time.[15] His misfortune was to serve as Convener at a time when business confidence in Scotland took a serious downturn, to the extent that there was disorder in the street and ‘severe distress and privation [in the] manufacturing classes’. He probably used the Incorporation’s funds as a bank, but no more so than his predecessors and the deficit of £374 he inherited quickly grew. Presumably because of the downturn, the number of meetings of the Incorporation had began to fall away, even in the year of his election and this continued until Steel was almost left running things himself. The deficit grew to £737 by February 1818 when the Incorporation were being coerced by the Town Council into building a new Convening Room at the end of Waterloo Place to the fashionable designs of Archibald Elliot [1760-1823] then in the process of developing Waterloo Place and Regent’s Bridge. It was at this point that Steell fatally allowed the quarterly audits of the accounts to lapse and by the time of the election of his successor in May 1819, the deficit stood at £1,480. For some reason not explained, or challenged by Steell, the audit was not carried out until July and by that time the full amount of £1727 had been reached. This irregularity was compounded by the insistence that Steell pay the full amount with little notice, an unfair demand and a break with accepted practice. His shame and disgrace was total and he had no further dealings with the Incorporation, neither he nor his wife claiming the pension to which they were entitled as paid up members.

        In his obituary it was stated that Steell ‘was so zealous in his efforts to foster a love for art, that he voluntarily fitted up the rooms and hung the pictures gratuitously’ for the earliest exhibitions of the Associated Artists from 1808.[16] This suggests a generosity of spirit that could easily have led to a confusion between his personal and Incorporation accounts and by his own admission he ‘kept no note of the bills granted by him except a jotting of the sums for which he thus received accommodation’.[17] When interrogated by his Trustees as to the reasons for his situation he revealed that he had entered a partnership with Frederick Gourlay in 1812 and on his death in 1815, Steell had agreed to pay £635 [c. £19,000] for his partner’s share of the stock in trade. He further admitted that he had made a loss on publishing eight portrait prints and in an estimate for carved work in the Library of the Writers to the Signet.[18] As a result of poor estimating on this commission ‘The men’s time wood etc. came to £68 Stg. more than what was agreed on and what ought to have been the profit of 11 men for 17 months and Steell’s own labour during that period’. The carved Corinthian capitals in the Signet Library are a credit to Steell’s skill as a wood carver but clearly, he did not have a head for business. In the outstanding accounts (that he was aware of) between 1813 and the year of his sequestration, he was owed £7,835 [£248,291] and yet he did not own any of the houses his family occupied.

        The legal process continued until early in 1826 when Steell’s in-laws agreed to withdraw their claim of almost £1900 against him and pay a further £1500 to the Trustees. They could only afford to do so because Gresham Gourlay, John Steell senior’s brother-in-law, died intestate towards the end of December the previous year. His substantial estate was divided among ten nephews and nieces and John Steell junior probably received well in excess of £2,000. One of his first acts was to purchase, through an intermediary, his father’s debts at a public roup or auction, for £15. Steell senior had petitioned his Trustees as early as October 1819 to be allowed to buy back his ‘gouges and chisels’ at their valuation and having cooperated fully with his creditors, in November he was released from his obligation to remain within the precincts of Holyrood Abbey. He is still recorded as being in the Abbey in the 1820 Post Office Directory for 1820 to 1821 with a house at 20 Calton Hill. It was clearly in the interests of all concerned that he be allowed to get back to work to support his large family and pay off his creditors. He began trading again as a carver and gilder from 3 South St. David Street in 1822 and by 1823 he had moved to 6 Hanover Street, a good address not far from his previous shop in Princes Street. He may have taken his son into partnership on completion of his apprenticeship the following year, trading as John Steell and Company. One of the last entries in the elder Steell’s sequestration papers records in February 1826 that ‘the business [had] been carried on in the name of his son’.

        John Steel junior cannot have done badly financially from his father's misfortune as he applied to the Dean of Guild Court in 1828 to build a studio at his new address in Thistle Street. The petition and the accompanying drawing have never previously been mentioned in the literature and this is probably because it languishes in the unextracted processes of the Court. This usually means that the application was not successful and indeed, after a vist to the site by the Court members, there is no annotation on the petition to suggest that a warrant was given. But this must be an oversight as Steel continued to live in Thistle Street for a number of years and there is no obvious reason why the petition should have been refused.


[1] The Company had been at this address since 1825. See North British and Mercantile Insurance Company, Centenary 1808-1909, Edinburgh, 1909, (Edinburgh Public Library).  

[2] For a very informative essay on Steell see Fiona Pearson’s ‘Sir John Steell and the Idea of a Native School of Scottish Sculpture’ in Fiona Pearson, ed. Virtue and Vision, Sculpture and Scotland 1540-1990, 1991. The portico remained in place until at least the turn of the century. See the photograph (by E. R. Yerbury?) in the Edinburgh Public Library, Edinburgh Room, pYDA 2236 (6189). In 1842 the Company moved to 64 Princes Street and a photograph of the building there includes a life size figure of St. Andrew in stone. It is not known if this figure, which survives in a private collection in Fife is by Sir John Steell.

[3] James Raeburn later drew up proposals to combine the Wellington and National Monuments in Edinburgh. See ECA: SL103/1, Mss Minutes of the Managers of the National Monument, pp. 440-1, Quarterly meeting of the Directors, 2 January 1841. Also Edinburgh Advertiser, 8 December 1840. He suggested adding further columns to the incomplete National Monument, creating a porch to be surmounted by a colossal equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. The pediments were to have groups illustrating the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo! John Steell won the competition to execute the Wellington Monument in 1840. 

[4] It is interesting that the figure was destined for the Company before the date of their first application to the Dean of Guild Court but there are no relevant documents in the Company archives to shed any light on this.

[5] See George A. FothergillStones and Curiosities of Edinburgh and Neighbourhood, Edinburgh, 1910-12, pp. 15-23. The Edinburgh City Museum at Huntley House has two of these figures, although of later date, including a Highlander and an Admiral; examples of a usage so commonplace, they were produced commercially in England later in the century The City collection also includes an eighteenth century head of a Negro Boy that once adorned the shop of James Gillespie in the High Street.

[6] SRO. Uncatalogued papers passed from National Gallery of Scotland, 1991. His letter was endorsed by William Burn [1789-1870] the architect son of Robert Burn [1752-1815] builder, marble cutter and sometime sculptor and James Gillespie [presumably the merchant and not the architect, born in 1776] both of whom agreed that he was ‘a young man of promising talents’. Robert Burn is believed to be the sculptor of a bust of James Gillespie [1799]. See Fiona Pearson, Virtue and Vision, Sculpture in Scotland 1540-1990, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, 1991, p. 22. illustrated. He may also have been the author of the ‘ten tablets and parts of friezes modelled by Burns’ listed in the Robert Adam sale in 1818. See Robert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851, London, 1951. The ledger of Academy students lists ‘John Steell, carver and gilder, Hanover Street’ admitted on 10th March 1828 and leaving exactly one year later. This is presumably Steell senior.

[7] The Scotsman, 11 January 1832, p. 3(c), ‘Sculpture’.

[8] Edinburgh Literary Journal, 28 February 1829, No. 16 p. 224(b), ‘Fine Arts. Eighth Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Institution’.

 [9] The Scotsman, 15 August 1827, ‘School of Arts’, p. 519(d). His lecture went on to consider the possibility of combining a proposed monument to the Duke of York with the National Monument.

[10] John Steel senior has been the subject of two articles; Charles J. Burnett, ‘A Carving of the Royal Arms by John Steell’ in The Double Tressure, Edinburgh, No. 6, 1984, pp.19-22 and David M. Bertie, ‘Another John Steell Heraldic Carving’ in The Double Tressure, Edinburgh, No. 8, 1986, pp. 8-9.

[11] All equivalents, Bank of England.

[12] Edinburgh City Archives, Minutes of the Incorporated Trades of Calton, SL110/1/5 6th August 1812 (un-paginated). He had competition very quickly from Adam Elder, carver and gilder, who became free on the 12th December in the same year.

[13] Scottish Record Office, CS96/415/1-2.

[14] The lists do not record any of his prints or books, nor do they include any reference to his family home, which is slightly irregular. Other tradesmen sequestrated at the time have the entire contents of their houses listed and it may be that Steell’s wife laid claim to all of the property in their family home. If so then it seems that some obvious items such as prints and books were removed from the shop.

[15] Edinburgh City Archive. Boxmaster’s and Convener’s accounts, SL110/4/19 and 20. In each of the quarters before Steell’s election the rolling deficit stood at £534, £472, £504 and £374. In his first year it was £404.

[16] Royal Scottish Academy, Library. Volume of Minutes of the Associated Artists 1808-1816. The group first met and exhibited in 1808. Steell appears in the Minutes on 23 March 1810, providing a ladder to hang the pictures in Henry Raeburn’s house. He was also responsible for the alterations to the exhibition room in Raeburn’s house in 1812 (24 February 1812) and to the ‘life academy’, probably meeting in the house of James Howe [1780-1836]. Steell presented an account for this work in May.

[17] SRO CS96/415/1, pp. 10-11.

[18] There is a mezzotint of Luke Fraser, by Charles Turner after George Watson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery [SP V 531-1] ‘published 1st September 1810 by John Steell, Printseller, No. 2 Lower Terrace, Leith Street’. The other names listed in the sequestration papers include; Inglis, Braidwood, Gibson or Gilow, Hope and L. H. Moncrieff. Mr. ------ is noted as ‘having been done twice’.

Architectural plan and elevation submitted to the Dean of Guild Court in 1828.
Architect unknown.

Detail of the drawing above.
Further detail of the drawing above.

To be continued........

Figure 1.

Figure 2.                                       Detail

Figure 3. View of the Royal Scottish Academy by George Washington Wilson c.1880-1900. The Ionic porch on the front of the North British Fire Insurance Co. building can be seen projecting at the left, just beyond the shop canopy. By this stage the sculpture had been removed. My thanks to Edinphoto for this illustration
Figure 4.      

Figure 5.Francis Duquesnoy. St Andrew
Figure 6. The wooden carving of St. Andrew in the Lodge Dalkeith Kilwinning No. 10. 

Thomas Begbie, Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, before c. 1857.

Detail of the pediment, where the carved arms, probably in wood, are signed at the left 'J Steell' and right 'Edin [fct?]'. The theatre was built in 1768 and minor alterations were carried out in 1811 [Edinburgh Dean of Guild Court, 18 April 1811]  William Burn undertook a major refurbishment in 1830 [D of G Court, 3 September]     presumably when the arms were carved by the younger Steell.               

Caledonian Mercury 8 October 1838

Maquette for the statue of Allan Ramsay. From a glass negative found with, and possibly by, Thomas Vernon Begbie. Negative now with Edinburgh City collection.  

Recently discovered in the Edinburgh Dean of Guild Court papers, City Archive:

Petition of Lockhart Thomson for the Committee for the erection of the group of 'Alexander and Bucephalus'. Warrant dated 10 January 1884. This petition includes three sheets of plans for the pedestal, signed by William Steell, architect, 9 Randoph Place.