James Grant and the artist’s imagination

From last September, one of our postgraduate interns from the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Massey, has been working with a large and unwieldy item from Central Library’s Special Collections. This is the sketchbook of the 19th century Scotsman James Grant, filled to the brim with paintings of historic Scottish buildings and some unexpected surprises. Having gone through each of the 383 artworks inside, recording their content and condition, Joseph has now arranged two separate exhibitions with Grant’s beautiful images at their heart. ‘Edinburgh’s Church on the Run! The journey of Trinity College Church, 1460 to present day’ is on display from 4 – 27 April in the Central Library’s Music Library, and explores the history of a forgotten architectural gem. ‘James Grant: the artist’s imagination’ is our new Capital Collections exhibition, focusing on Grant’s artistic development and creativity.

Few people could claim to have had as prolific and wide-ranging a career as the Edinburgh-born artist, novelist, historian and architect James Grant (1822-1887). Grant’s output was immense, but it all had a common purpose – to celebrate Scotland’s historic architectural achievements and to drive the country forward to create new masterpieces.

However, Grant’s early experiences in Scotland were not positive. Grant was only a child when his mother Mary Anne Watson died in 1833 and his father, Captain John Grant of the Gordon Highlanders, immediately took James and his two brothers to live with him in his Canadian barracks. Mary Anne had been a capable artist herself, and Grant kept two of his mother’s paintings for the rest of his life, putting them inside his own sketchbook. One of her paintings is of Craigmillar Castle, showing a mother and her child walking in the foreground. Perhaps Mary Anne took her son James to see the castle. Grant later produced a number of beautiful paintings of Craigmillar Castle, perhaps with distant memories of his mother in mind.

Craigmillar Castle by Mary Anne Watson

It was while living in Canada that Grant’s own artistic talent began to emerge. And, fittingly, he started with a painting of the fort’s architecture. Fort Townsend, based on the east coast island of Newfoundland, was the headquarters of the British Newfoundland garrison and the Grant family lived there at Barrack Square. In 1836, when Grant was thirteen or fourteen years old, he stood on the balcony of the east building and painted a picture of the barracks opposite. As an adult Grant painted more pictures of the place that had been his home for six years.

Fort Townsend, St John’s, Newfoundland

Grant’s family returned to Britain in 1839 and he soon joined an architect’s office in Edinburgh. He spent his twenties travelling around Scotland to see as many of its historic castles, palaces, houses and churches as possible – and it is these beautiful pictures that fill most of his sketchbook. Grant’s artistic imagination extended to drawing historic ruins as they would have looked in their heyday, and the most impressive of these is a series of paintings made in 1848 of Craigmillar Castle, where he has imagined how the castle would look with all of its roofs restored. Craigmillar had a number of dramatic connections to members of the Stuart royal family, including Mary Queen of Scots, which was probably why Grant found it so interesting.

Craigmillar Castle – ‘restored’

Grant also wanted to construct buildings of his own design, and the sketchbook contains his designs for two churches, a cathedral and a cemetery gateway – though unfortunately none of them were constructed. They all show his love of medieval gothic architecture, with an abundance of elaborate carved stonework, beautiful window tracery and pinnacles. Grant was also inspired by the work of his contemporaries in both Scotland and continental Europe, where the gothic style was experiencing a revival. Grant’s 1846 design for the west front of a cathedral is one of the largest and most detailed works in his sketchbook. Scotland had no medieval cathedrals as elaborate as this – Grant wanted to bring something new and exciting to his native country.

Cathedral design

It was this love of gothic architecture which drove Grant to make a number of images of Trinity College Church, built in the 1460s and originally located below Calton Hill. In the 1840s the North British Railway company purchased the site of the church so that they could demolish it and make room for Waverley Station. Grant immediately set to work, creating numerous images of the exterior and sculptural details inside, which included monkeys on the pillar capitals! Many other prominent Scotsmen, such as David Bryce, also painting the church and making suggestions for where it could be rebuilt. Some of the earliest photographs taken in Scotland show Trinity College Church before its demolition. Unfortunately the church was not rebuilt in its entirety – after leaving the stones sitting on Calton Hill for 20 years, there was only enough material left to rebuilt part of it, which can still be seen down Chalmers Close, off the Royal Mile.

Trinity College Church

Today Grant is best known for his three-volume series Old and New Edinburgh (1880-83), which traces the history of Edinburgh through its buildings. It is a fitting legacy for a man who devoted his life to Scotland’s architecture.

Joseph’s exhibitions expertly shine a light on the history of Trinity College Church and the work of James Grant:

Church on the run! The journey of Trinity College Church, 1460 to present day
4 – 27 April, Mezzanine, Central Library

James Grant: the artist’s imagination is available to view on Capital Collections.