The Twelve Monuments Project
Take a close look at any of the classic views of Edinburgh and it is easy to see the importance of the city’s statues and monuments. They are amongst the city’s most distinctive and precious assets, often taking centre-stage as iconic images of Edinburgh, and greatly contributing to the rich and complex character of the Old and New Towns World Heritage Site.
In 2007 a unique project set out to ensure that these landmarks are preserved for future generations to enjoy. The Twelve Monuments Project was a joint initiative between the charity Edinburgh World Heritage and the City of Edinburgh Council, with the aim of restoring some the city’s most important monuments and statues.
Over the last six years work was has been carried out to 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 itself. 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 has also supported traditional skills, such 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 over-looking the Old Town. This set the stone masons a great challenge of carving by hand elaborate details such as the legs of a tripod and a wing for one of the lion, 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 in the work. Young people training with the Future Jobs Fund got involved with the conservation of three bronze statues in Princes Street Gardens. The fund offers work experience to young school leavers who have not found work, increasing their awareness of employability skills and possible career paths. With their help, each of the statues were cleaned to remove all the accumulated grime, then 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, which was carried out by conservation volunteer Georgina von Hof, providing her with valuable new experience for her future career.
The project has 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 wood carver. Another statue of King Charles at Windsor Castle, which bears a striking resemblance to the one in Edinburgh, is known to have been by Gibbons, but small differences in the two threw the idea into some doubt. The conservators were able to examine the statues in detail, and it became obvious that the Edinburgh example had lost some features over the years, and also that the corroding armature had caused the whole statue to buckle. 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 has come 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 has received has shown 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.