Sir John Steell RSA and his statues of Robert Burns

Posted on 25 September 2020

In his second post for the RSA blog, Murdo Macdonald HRSA considers two of Scotland’s greatest sons, in sculpture and verse: Sir John Steell RSA and Robert Burns


John Steell (1804-1891) put public sculpture on the map in Scotland. He is remembered in particular for his marble statue of Sir Walter Scott made for Edinburgh in the 1840s, which took its place as the central feature of the Scott Monument. In 1872 a version in bronze was installed in Central Park in New York. But the lack of a Burns statue was immediately felt by the New Yorkers so they commissioned Steell to design one. Thus one of the most interesting of all Burns statues came into being. It was installed in Central Park in 1880. It is versions of that statue that I consider here.


SIr John Steell RSA, Robert Burns, Central Park, New York City. [By Another Believer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0]


Only two weeks after the New York unveiling an identical statue was unveiled in Dundee. In 1884 Steell made a slightly different version for Embankment Gardens in London, and in 1887 one almost identical to the London statue was installed in Dunedin in New Zealand. Steell was also commissioned to carve a marble portrait bust for Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. It was installed in 1885.


Sir John Steell RSA, Robert Burns, Dundee. [By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0]


Sir John Steell RSA, Robert Burns, London. [By Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0]


Each version of Steell’s Burns is an impressive massing of dynamically articulated bronze. In his thinking Steell refers back to seated works of the classical period like The Boxer at Rest, yet at the same time he lays opens the way for large-scale, closely-focussed modern sculptures like Paolozzi’s Newton. Steell’s series of Burns statues was among his last work. He is an example of an artist who continued to develop his aesthetic language up to the end of his life, a trait that he shares with Titian, Claude and Hokusai.


Eduardo Paolozzi HRSA, Newton, 1995, London. [By Eduardo Paolozzi, CC BY-SA 2.0]


Complementing sculptures made by Steell and other RSAs, much of the popular imagery associated with Robert Burns links to paintings by John Faed and George Harvey, both of whom were key figures in the Academy in the second half of the nineteenth century. That tradition of responding to Burns continues to the present day in the work of Calum Colvin and Graham Fagen. For more detailed discussion of Burns and art see my ‘Robert Burns and the Visual Arts: Portraiture, National Landscapes and the Context of Monuments’ in The Oxford Companion to Robert Burns edited by Gerard Carruthers, forthcoming.


Calum Colvin RSA, Burnsomania, photographic print, 2017. © the artist


Murdo Macdonald HRSA