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Sculptor Robert Forrest

The following is a very well written account of Robert Forrest to be found on the website owned by Joe Rock, containing many photographs of his statues. The text of the page is reproduced here by kind permission in case the owners website should disappear, as they often do.


The following is a very well written account of Robert Forrest to be found on the website owned by Joe Rock, containing many photographs of his statues. The text of the page is reproduced here by kind permission in case the owners website should disappear, as they often do.


Robert Forrest, sculptor 1789-1852 - Joe Rock's Research Pages


A fully referenced version of this article can be found in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, New Series Vol. 7, 2008 pp. 127-38. For another article on the subject see: Joe Rock, ‘”An ingenious self-taught sculptor”, Robert Forrest [1789-1852]’ in The Sculpture Journal, IX, (2003) pp. 62-71.

            Robert Forrest is not a well-known sculptor but he was an influential figure and significantly increased the popularity of sculpture in nineteenth century Scotland. His work forms a prominent if largely ignored feature of the townscape in Edinburgh, Falkirk Haddington and Glasgow and there may be surviving but unidentified works in England. Some of his work is in private hands, standing in parks and gardens across Scotland, but sadly a great deal has also been lost or badly damaged. This article will examine the sculptural spectacle Forrest arranged on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh, between 1832 and the auction sale of his work in 1876.

            Forrest was born at ‘Barrs Nook’ (presently Briarsneuk) Lanarkshire on the 27th November 1789, the son of Robert Forrest, a tailor and Mary Golder. He may have begun life as a shepherd but around 1805 he was apprenticed to a Mr. Selkirk as a stonemason. Robert Chambers, writing in 1832, suggested that in 1810 Forrest visited the Castles of Maudslie, Craignethan and Douglas, near his quarry, where he saw examples of carved sculpture. It is not clear what he saw that might have inspired his life-sized figures but Forrest, writing about his life in 1846, adds Hamilton Palace to this list of early influences. The collection there included among other sculpture the famous set of five sixteenth century bronze figures, cast in Italy by order of François I, in moulds made from antique originals.

            Forrest's earliest works were small, carved animals but he soon attracted patronage among the local gentry and began a series of large single figures such as the Highland Chief in 1817 (since 1929 in the grounds of Westoun House, Lanarkshire). He moved to a quarry at Orchard, north of Crossford where he began to work on historical subjects; Rob Roy (1818), Old Norval (1819], both un-traced and Sir John Falstaff (1823), now in the gardens at Torrance House. According to J. M. Leighton he advertised his presence by building a Gothic structure ornamented by two statues near the road at Andrewbank where he occasionally exhibited other sculpture. Taking advantage of a picturesque bend in the Clyde and the passing carriage trade, he may have built a second screen, described as 'Grecian', at Crossford itself:

between the Clyde and the turnpike-road, at Crossford, Mr. Forrest constructed a neat screen of Grecian type, surmounted by statuettes, behind which he placed the equestrian groups, already constructed, that had long been left in the quarry unprotected.

            These structures have not survived and there is no visual record of them. His reputation grew and in 1820 he presented a figure of Sir William Wallace, apparently copied from 'an ancient drawing in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries', to the town of Lanark. This drawing (now un-traced) was presumably also the source for a monumental statue of Wallace by John Smith of Darnick, erected by the Earl of Buchan, President of the Society, near his house at Dryburgh in 1814. Forrest's figure was placed with great ceremony in a niche in the new Tolbooth at Lanark where it remains today and forms the centrepiece of annual civic celebrations. According to Chambers, Forrest began carving figures inspired by the poetry of Alan Ramsay [1684-1758] and Robert Burns [1759-1796] in 1823. The artist did little to counter the myth that he was self-taught but his interest in poetry coincided with a short period of formal training he undertook at the School of Arts in Edinburgh in 1823, where John Steell senior [1779-1849] wood carver and print-seller, was the teacher of modelling. He also attended 'Mr. Warren's Academy in Glasgow in 1825-6 where he studied anatomy, drawing and modelling. The catalogue of the Calton Hill exhibition lists two groups inspired by poetry, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnny and Simon and Bauldy, all four figures having been re-discovered, standing in the garden of a private house in Fife. The seated figures of Tam and Souter Johnny were very popular subjects and as well as Forrest’s figure of Tam, which Chambers says was the earliest, others are known by James Thom [1802-1850], now at the Burns Cottage Museum at Alloway and by David Anderson [c.1804-1847] at Fingask Castle. All of these figures were inspired by an eighteenth century fascination with the seated figure, that developed among artists associated with St. Martin's Lane Academy in London. Forrest may have seen prints of the languorous seated figure of Handel, carved in 1738 for the Vauxhall gardens in London by Louis François Roubiliac [c.1705-1762]. Closer to home, he undoubtedly knew the magnificent seated marble portrait of Lord President Forbes, also by Roubiliac, accessible in the public space of the Parliament Hall in Edinburgh, where it was placed in 1752.

            The public display of the Wallace statue in Lanark raised Forrest’s profile considerably and resulted in further commissions. In October 1824, The Scotsman responded in glowing terms to his figure of Lord Melville, while it was still in his quarry near Crossford and Chambers says that the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Belhaven visited Forrest while he worked on the piece. The design was supplied by Francis Chantry [1781-1841] and is very close to his 1818 marble of the same subject that dominates (by its size, if little else) its position in Parliament House in Edinburgh. Forrest’s figure arrived in Edinburgh before August 1827 in several pieces, some of which had been blocked out by his assistant John Greenshields [c.1792-1835] who went on to become a sculptor of some note. The statue was placed on the top of the Melville Monument, designed by William Burn [1789-1870] some five years earlier for the centre of St. Andrew’s Square. The greatly blackened figure, which is a well-known feature of the Edinburgh skyline, is carved with deeply flowing robes that give it the necessary dramatic interest from a distance.

            Robert Forrest moved to the Scottish capital around 1832, encouraged out of the seclusion of his Lanarkshire quarry by the success of the Melville statue and by the enormous success of another sculptor, James Thom, in Edinburgh. Thom held an exhibition in the city in 1829 where he attracted an astonishing 18,000 visitors, each paying a shilling for the pleasure of seeing his carved stone figures of Tam O Shanter and Souter Johnny. Michael Linning [1775-1838], secretary to the Melville Monument Subscribers Committee was also Secretary to the Royal Association of Subscribers to the National Monument. By November 1829, the Association had completed twelve columns of a proposed full-scale reconstruction of the Parthenon on top of the Calton Hill, to the designs of C. R. Cockerell [1788-1863]. The intention was to build a memorial to the Scots who died at the Battle of Waterloo but by 1829 subscriptions had run out and desperate attempts were being made to raise the necessary funds.

            In 1831, Linning unexpectedly announced that he had secured access to a free supply of stone in Lanarkshire for the completion of the building and at the same time he proposed that Robert Forrest be allowed to display two equestrian figures - Mary, Queen of Scots and The Duke of Wellington, in the space behind the columns, where he was also to be allowed to build a wooden hut. Forrest's presence worked to the benefit of the Managers as it kept alive the possibility of completing the Monument and Forrest no doubt hoped to capitalise in on the proposal to turn the building into a Scottish Valhalla, with sculptural memorials to the great and the good. A series of four equestrian figures, The Duke of Wellington, The Duke of Marlborough, Mary Queen of Scots with Lord Herries and Robert the Bruce and the Monk of Baston, were mentioned in a note ‘from a correspondent’ in The Scotsman in January 1832, without any reference to Edinburgh. But by July of that year, they were listed in the first advertisement for Forrest's exhibition of 'Equestrian Statuary' on the Calton Hill. The Duke of Wellington, or possibly another version of the same, was purchased from the artist’s widow by Falkirk City Council in 1854 and erected in the town centre. The figures of Mary and Marlborough are untraced but John Monro has discovered Robert the Bruce and the Monk of Baston in good condition in a private collection.

            With remarkable enthusiasm for sculpture of any kind, The Scotsman reported almost every movement of stone to Forrest’s ‘Statuary’ on the Calton Hill in the 1830’s and described each piece as it was executed and placed on show. In May 1833 they noted progress on three statues, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson 'late minister of St. George's Church'. Of these John Monro has found the figure of Dr. Andrew Thomson and Lord Byron but the latter is badly damaged. The un-located statue of Sir Walter Scott, clearly influential in relation to Sir John Steell’s figure of the same sitter for the Scott Monument in 1844, was described by The Scotsman:

Sir Walter Scott is seated in an arm chair with his head leaning on his right hand in a musing posture. In his left hand which rests on his knee is a quantity of mss. with a pencil. He is dressed in a morning gown and slippers.

            Perhaps Forrest’s most original work, The Fall of Mazeppa based on the poem by Byron, was on view in May 1834 but it is now a greatly vandalised lump of stone, lying in Hamilton Park near Glasgow where it was placed in 1926. The completion of further equestrian groups was announced, the Conversion of St. Paul in April and King James V in October 1835. The St Paul is un-located but the description of 'the steed... almost squatted on his hinder legs... while his fore parts are upheaved' suggests that it had some influence on Steell's later bronze of the Duke of Wellington [cast 1852]. King James V and the Gypsy now stands near the modern Crammond Bridge in a small office complex. The report on the arrival of the stone for this group on an October evening in 1835 gives a flavour of The Scotsman’s enthusiasm and also highlights the importance of the spectacle to Forrest's endeavour:

Last night between six and seven o’clock, a ponderous block of freestone, from Craigleith Quarry, was brought into town, and safely lodged in the studio of our talented countryman, Mr. Forrest, on the Calton Hill. It was drawn on a wagon by eight powerful horses, the property of Mr. Johnston of Craigleith, which were assisted in dragging it out of the quarry, and up the Calton Hill, by the quarrymen, about 60 in number, with ropes attached to the wagon. The weight of the block, when raised from its bed in the quarry, was 23 tons; but Mr. Forrest had rough modelled it down to about 14 tons. It is still, however, a stupendous piece of rock, and its passage along Prince’s Street attracted a great crown of spectators, who followed it to its destination. We understand that the subject Mr. Forrest means to illustrate, in this new effort of his chisel, is the attack by gypsies on King James V, in Cramond Wood, the legend on which the drama of Cramond Brig is founded, which drama is at present having a successful run at the English Opera House’.
            Quarry managers and owners presented Forrest with stone and clearly vied with each other for the publicity value of ever-larger blocks being dragged along the main thoroughfare of the Edinburgh New Town. They were well aware of the value of such a Biblical spectacle, of men and oxen toiling through the setting sun of an October evening along a dusty Princes Street, advertising their product in what was one of the largest building sites in Scotland. Once the statues were in place, The Scotsman duly noted visits to the site by every passing aristocrat and dignitary. In 1832, they reported that deaf and dumb children were enthusiastic about the rustic figures in the anteroom.

            There were many descriptions of the exhibition but once again, the best were probably written by William Ritchie, founding Editor of The Scotsman;

We have much pleasure in drawing the attention of the public to this admirable exhibition on the Calton Hill, which is certainly a most finished group of statuary. On entering the exhibition room, the attention is first attracted by the athletic and mystic form of the “Bruce of Bannockburn” receiving from William Baston a poem in praise of the Scots, “whom Bruce had often led”. Behind him stands, in restive posture his stout-made, noble-looking horse. The next group is Mary “Scotia’s Queen”, seated on a palfrey rampant, with Lord Herries urging her to retreat from the battle of Langside. The third group that merits attention is the Duke of Marlborough, with his steed beside him, in a posture after the manner of one of the Elgin Marbles. The Duke is a well-made figure, of almost colossal size; but the object of our admiration in this group is the steed: its excellent, its finely proportioned limbs cannot fail to call forth approbation from all who see it. The last and perhaps the best executed of the groups is the Duke of Wellington, in the uniform of a British field officer, leaning on the shoulder of his steed, which is in the act of pawing. The visitor is next admitted to the ante-room, where, in the north west corner, is planted honest Tam O’Shanter,
                              “And at his elbow Souter Johnny,

                              His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony”

One almost thinks he hears the loud guffaw of honest Tam and can scarcely refrain from joining in his hearty expression of joy. In the opposite corner stands poor Bauldy, in his dreadful fright, his hair on end, his eyes almost starting from their sockets – his hands clasped in hopeless terror – his mouth gaping wide – and we had almost said his knees knocking against each other; while Symon, half naked, stands before him; nearly disposed to laugh, and yet somewhat anxious-like to know poor Bauldy’s tale. This is conceived in the true spirit of the pastoral form  from which the idea is taken, and every admirer of the Gentle Shepherd will peruse its pages with more zest after he has seen Mr. Forrest’s statues of Symon and Bauldy.

            Shortly before July 1836, Forrest carved a pair of figures, Lord Nelson and The Duke of Wellington for niches on either side of the imposing entrance to Falcon Hall, designed by Thomas Hamilton [1784-1858] before 1823. Alexander Falconer, a retired nabob may have supported the artist on his tour of the Continent in 1837, described by Forrest in 1846:

Mr. Forrest proceeded to France and Italy in 1837, and visited the Louvre, Versailles, and every public place celebrated for works of art. He passed through Genoa and Picenza to Parma, where he was detained fourteen days under quarantine. While compelled to remain in that city, a fellow traveller, who was a native, procured for him an admission to sketch in the Gallery of Paintings and Sculpture, in which he passed the greater part of his time, varied by visits to the Grand Palace gardens and the Churches, some of the latter containing excellent specimens of statuary. After his release from quarantine, he went to Bologna, a city possessing the greatest attractions to the sculptor and artist. The cemetery is probably the grandest in the world, the churches are adorned by statuary of the very first class, and the Cathedral in particular magnificently enriched in the several recesses. In one of these recesses, the third on the left hand entering from the front, is as fine a specimen of drapery as can be found in Italy of that bold outline and broad simplicity so successfully practised and brought to perfection by the late Sir Francis Chantry. ... Mr. Forrest next visited Florence, and obtained permission to sketch in the Gallery of Painting and Sculpture in that celebrated city. He examined the churches and chapels, which contain ample materials for the most imaginative mind, the specimens of sculpture being by many of the ancient and eminent masters. One church contains Michael Angelo’s Day Break, Dawn and Night, which never fails to arrest the attention and impress the feelings of those who can appreciate the grand in form and the mighty in conception.

            The tour was surprisingly brief as Forrest explains that the Earl of Elgin commissioned him to design a monument to the Duke Wellington on the summit of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh in 1838.

Mr Forrest prepared three plans, containing outline views of the summit of Arthur’s Seat with three colossal statues of different sizes – one 60 feet high, a second about 80 feet high and a third 100 feet high, each figure standing on a low pedestal. Equestrian groups of the same sizes of figures were also sketched.

            The 80-ft figure was chosen and the sculptor set about making a model of the upper part of Arthur’s Seat with the statue in place, and displayed it in his exhibition. But sadly the idea faded with the death of the Earl in 1841 and neither the model or the designs, one of which was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1841, have survived.

            But Robert Forrest’s sculpture struggled to find a market outside the exhibition he arranged on the Calton Hill and in 1838 his greatest champion, Michael Linning died suddenly in the midst of sequestration proceedings against him. Linning had been declared bankrupt in 1834 and his Trustees demanded payment of almost £800 from the Directors of the National Monument, a demand they could not meet and which forced them into a slow decline. From 1838 they considered charging rent, beginning a process of haggling with Forrest that went on until 1842 when it was set at 5 Guineas, backdated to 1840. Forrest continued to increase his exhibition annually with new works and the Sisters of Scio was executed in 1839. In the same year The Scotsman became aware of some difficulty, reporting that the exhibition was to be closed down and the sculpture removed. Forrest may have planted this story in an attempt to drum up business because he remained in place and in January 1843 and 1844 he produced plans to build a cottage on the hill, but was refused. In an addendum to his 1846 Exhibition Catalogue, Monumental Designs Selected from the Cemetery of Bologna and other celebrated places of Sepulture in Italy, he listed a collection of six clay models that might be executed in stone or marble for churchyards or cemeteries. No funerary sculpture by Forrest other than the public monuments already mentioned is known but it may be that he supported himself during his leaner years with this more anonymous form of employment.

            Far from filling the artist with classical fervour, his time in Italy pushed Forrest towards the sentimental and this is evident in the Sisters of Scio and the monument to Robert Ferguson of Raith, erected at the western entrance to the town of Haddington and unveiled in June 1843. In a well tried formulae (John Knox on the Glasgow necropolis, 1825 and Melville, 1827) the monument consists of a statue atop an elegant fluted Doric column, but on this occasion supported by four figures in mourning. Writing about the group in 1846 Forrest stated that two pairs of the figures had been copied from ‘celebrated pieces of sculpture in Italy’. Of the four figures, a male represents Agriculture while Geology, Art and Justice are represented as heavily cloaked females.

            In 1849, the Royal Association of Contributors demanded an increase in Forrest’s rent to £20 per annum and he complained that he had all the expenses of repairing and maintaining the palisades and in keeping up canvassers for his exhibition. By 1850 James Linning Woodman (Michael Linning's nephew and successor as Secretary) was defending Forrest by suggesting that his removal ‘would deprive a portion of the public of the gratification, which they derive from inspecting the works.... even admitting that these are not classical in their proportion or high in the scale of artistic production’. The difficulty was that Forrest had quite literally, fallen between a rock and a hard place – he could not afford to pay more rent and he could not afford to move his work. In 1851 he approached the Town Council and asked them to find him another site but they refused. He wrote to the Council again later that year to say that he had closed down his exhibition and had been trying to find another site in the City, without success. ‘It is therefore my intention to remove at least part of my Statuary to Cheshire where I have procured suitable accommodation. The remainder of my sculpture I intend to locate in Leith Walk until my future plans are more developed’. In the meantime, he asked if he could open his exhibition on the Hill until the 2nd January 1852 and the Council agreed. In January, they reminded him of his agreement and he wrote that he had closed his exhibition although he had not found a new site. ‘My exhibition in Cheshire has not been so productive as I had reason to expect, indeed, it has landed me in debt which I have no means of paying’.

            The attempt to exhibit in Cheshire is something of a mystery. It may be that the reasons for his venture were related to the activities of the architect James Gillespie Graham [1776-1855] who designed an elegant square of houses for the Scot, William Laird, in Birkenhead.  The north and east sides of the square were begun in 1825 but the south and west sides were not started until 1839-44 and it may be that Forrest’s statues were exhibited as a way of encouraging an interest in the stone terraces. No record of any such exhibition has been found. but it is interesting that missing works by Forrest include statues of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington, figures likely to have been of interest to an English audience. A full size statue of Sir Walter Scott might also have been part of the group sent to Cheshire. This was probably not the seated 1833 figure described earlier, but another recorded in 1846 as being ‘for a family in Kent, done in 1840’.

            The sculptor died on the 28th December 1852 and was interred in the Warriston cemetery on the 3rd January 1853. Ironically, for a man who left so many monuments in stone, his grave is unmarked. His testament is a fascinating mixture of the showman and the practical man of business. His trustees were the Linning brothers, James Brown of Orchard, Robert Stevenson, civil engineer, and James Slight, practical engineer. These gentlemen were entrusted with all his moveable estate but with very specific instructions on its dispersal. After the payment of all debts his widow, Margaret Caldwell was to have any income from his property. On Margaret’s death or marriage all of his statues were to be given to the Royal Association of Contributors to the National Monument (each of the noble members is listed ostentatiously in the testament, with their full titles) ‘in the hope that said Officer bearers may give the same a place within the National Monument, so that they may be preserved and kept together’. In addition, at his own decease he gave the Royal Association ‘all books and drawings connected with the Art of Sculpture, together with a portrait of myself by Warren’. In exchange, his wife was to have a free annuity of £40. The whereabouts of this material is unknown.

            Forrest’s testament, made out in November 1836 is full of the enthusiasm of a successful artist. By the 21st July 1839 however when the first hints of financial difficulties began to arise, he added a codicil ‘considering that I have deemed it expedient in some degree to restrict and alter the provisions before referred to’. This codicil was almost certainly the work of James Linning Woodman, who clearly sought to re-direct Forrest’s gift and reduce the liability of the Association of Contributors. Now the sculpture would only be transferred to the Association if work on the National Monument were to re-commence – a pretty forlorn hope in 1839. Failing this, the statuary ‘and other relative effects’ were to be transferred to the Lord Provost and Magistrates of the City of Edinburgh. It seems that the agreement of the Town Council had not been sought as the document suggests that this would occur only ‘on their...entering into a valid obligation binding themselves and their successors if office to keep up, exhibit and maintain the said statues in all time coming in some prominent situation within the City of Edinburgh’. Certainly, nothing of this appears in the Minutes of the Town Council in 1839.

            Woodman wrote to the Lord Provost in March 1853 after Forest’s death, drawing his attention to the artist’s gift, but as some of the pieces had been on permanent exhibition for upwards of twenty years, they had simply lost their novelty and had begun to attract serious criticism. In 1865 Mr. John Cox of Gorgie Mills approached the Council about the possibility of a permanent site. By April 1866 he had moved the sculpture to the Royal Crescent with a payment of £10 from the Council. By 1875, the mood began to change and in August, Councillor Donaldson suggested that the Lord Provost’s Committee should consider securing some or all of Forrest’s statuary to adorn the different parks in the City. After a heated discussion the Council agreed to take possession of the sculpture but in November 1876, the works were sold at an auction arranged by Lyon and Turnbull. The catalogue, or sale list with prices realised, is preserved in the Edinburgh Public Library but the Hamilton Advertiser for 11th November 1876 reported the final resting place of some of the works;

The principal buyer on Monday was Mr. Mitchell, commissioned on the Earnock and Neilsland estates who purchased for Mr. Watson some very fine statues, including – Burns resting from the Plough: Old Norval; Henry Bell, the inventor of the steam boat; Charles XII of Sweden; a Cossack Prince under an oak; the Sisters of Scio, in Craigleith stone; Lord Lovat, from Hogarth’s painting; a statue of Lord Byron; an equestrian statue of King Robert the Bruce and War Horse, receiving a poem from the monk of Baston; also an equestrian statue of the first Napoleon and his Charger Marengo; Busts of Effie and Jeannie Deans, and the Pirate, from Sir Walter Scott; and some other figures.

            Sir John Watson [1819-1898] was a wealthy coal merchant and he placed his purchases at picturesque points on his recently (1874) acquired estate. Of these works, five survive in the collection of the family who purchased them – Burns Resting from the Plough, Charles XII of Sweden, The Sisters of Scio, Lord Byron and Robert the Bruce and the Monk of Baston, although they are no longer in the sites where some of them were photographed in 1877 by Thomas Annan. John Monro has discovered evidence along the banks of the Clyde, for the partially destroyed figures of Napoleon and Lord Byron, and the Sisters of Scio has been used for target practice since his first visit. The Napoleon appears to have been similar in design to the statue of Wellington and may have been intended as a pendant. The group Charles XII of Sweden, inspired by Byron’s poem ‘Mazeppa’, was carved from stone from the Ravelstone Black quarry, near Corstorphine Hill in Edinburgh – ‘a rare and choice specimen of a stone which is nearly jet black when taken out of the quarry’.

            Robert Forrest’s work, very much like that of the sculptor Ronald Rae [b. 1946] is loved, by the public or loathed, by the art critics. Less relevant now as reminders of characters from literature or as repositories of national feeling, Forrest's works are nevertheless fascinating examples of the sentiment of their time. They are occasionally awkward in pose and design but are well carved with great feeling and from the evidence, had a lasting influence on the work of later sculptors in Scotland; John Steele’s mounted Wellington and seated Walter Scott are clearly a response to Forrest’s work. But their significance lies not in the detail of individual works, interesting though they are, but in their popularity with the general public. The great enthusiasm for public sculpture in later Victorian and Edwardian Scotland, built on interest in the medium generated by sculptors like Forrest and promoted in an extraordinary way by The Scotsman newspaper in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of John Munro who has worked tirelessly on bringing Forrest to public attention. Also to thank Helen Smailes and Fiona Pearson of the National Galleries of Scotland who have provided references too numerous to detail. Many owners have also been generous with their time and while thanking them, they must remain anonymous for the protection of the works in their care.

Created before 2012