Elected ARSA: 16 March 1960

Elizabeth Strachan Dempster was born on 23rd April, 1909, the younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Duncan Ferguson Dempster of Greenock. Orphaned, she came to Edinburgh in 1930 where she would be near her guardian, the Very Rev. Dr. Charles Warr, H.R.S.A., Chaplain 1927-1969.


An Edinburgh address gave opportunity to further her determination for a career as a Sculptor. She attended classes in the Edinburgh College of Art, under the direction of Alexander Carrick as Head of School and Norman Forrest, to become a member of a happy and devoted band of students which included Hew Lorimer, Scott Sutherland and Tom Whalen—to name only those who were to become elected Members of the Academy. Her experiences were enlarged in the Department of Sculpture in the London Regent Street Polytechnic and in pre-War Munich.


Throughout her life Elizabeth remained a carver, her medium being either wood or stone. Before the 1939 War, she already had to her credit work commissioned for the 4938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow by both the Promoters and by the Clyde Navigation Trust, for whom she created a large silvered Seahorse.


For the High Kirk of St Giles, she carved three large oak figures,Jubal and two 5'6"'high Angels. On carving her way to the centre of one of the latter, Elizabeth found the heavy bulk rotten. It is characteristic of her that she refused aid either manual or mechanical. She began again the considerable task afresh: her work was invariably her work.


As with most of her generation, Elizabeth Dempster’s career was interrupted by the 1939 War: she enrolled in and remained throughout with the nursing service. Returning to Edinburgh after the War, a vacant garage was acquired and converted into a well-lit studio whence flowed a steady stream of highly individual works. Her Black Queen, one half hundred weight of dark stone, entered a private collection in 1947. In St Giles War Memorial Chapel, in 1951, her four square stone carvings filled the quarters of an austere Cross, being the unusual, albeit appropriate symbols for the four Elements, Fire, Earth, Air and Water.


She worked with C.d’O. Pilkington Jackson on the Royal Scots Memorial in Princes Street gardens, and for Hew Lorimer, she was responsible on the exterior of the National Library of Scotland for seven most original relief carvings which surmounts his lofty allegorical figures. For the State Visit in 1953, when Her Majesty the Queen attended the National Service, the High Kirk of St Giles was prepared for the great occasion.


It was Elizabeth who carved the two blazoned Archangels, St Michael and St Gabriel, standing over the Holy Table on which, while Her Majesty received Scotland’s ancient and beautiful Crown, rested the Honours of Scotland. Each of her Archangels held the appropriate symbol, sword and sceptre, miniatures of those lying below, as they stood guard on the precise locations of pre-reformation chapels of these dedications.


Elizabeth Dempster’s work invariably bore the hallmark of its creator, more often than not being imbued with a wit and anonymity that was Romanesque. Of a most reserved character, those unaware of her underlying humour and fun might well have found her anti-social. In truth, with the great gift of ability to collaborate, this most loyal of women was of sterling character.


Elected A.R.S.A. in 1960 (as was Alex Dick. With two women, a first in the Royal Scottish Academy) this lovely and serene person was of a retiring disposition. To the regret of her colleagues, she sought transfer to our Retired List a decade later. Following her death on 16th January, 1987, the Royal Scottish Academy found its Funds remembered in a bequest,its Collection enlarged with work from her studio.

Transcribed from the 1987 RSA Annual Report


Further Images

Elizabeth Strachan Dempster (1909-1987), Noah (Standing Monk Holding a Dove)

Stone, around 1930-39, 63.5 x 21.5 x 9.5cm

Bequest of Elizabeth Strachan Dempster ARSA (1987) 2009.043