Sculpture in the Orkney Museum 

Sculpture in the Orkney Museum

[Author, Rachel Boak, Curator]

Orkney Islands Council sculpture now online at Art UK 

Sculpture in Orkney Islands Council’s collection has just gone online as part of Art UK’s project to record all sculpture in public collections around the country. 

A two-day photo-shoot took place in March 2019, documenting sculpture on display and in store at Orkney Museum, Orkney Library & Archive, and St Magnus Cathedral.

The work to identify, list, check catalogue information and photograph items made of stone, bronze, lead, plaster, resin and wood was carried out by Curator, Rachel Boak, Art UK Sculpture Coordinator (Edinburgh, Glasgow & Southern Scotland), Rhona Taylor, Art UK Regional Digitisation Manager, Hazel Buchan Cameron, and photographer, Rebecca Marr. The sculpture collections at Stromness Museum and the Pier Arts Centre have also been catalogued as part of this project. 

Rebecca Marr photographing bust of WE Gladstone by Thomas Woolner; photograph by Rhona Taylor, Art UK

After a lengthy checking and uploading process, Orkney Islands Council’s collection has now joined thousands of other sculptures online. 

On the Art UK website people can see records for sculptures in public ownership across the country and photographs of many of the key works. The site also includes additional information about artists, objects and subject matter. A range of writers are continuing to tell the stories behind the works through online articles. 

The new sculpture records join the 200,000 oil paintings already digitised by Art UK, which includes those in Orkney Islands Council’s collection, and a growing number of works on paper.

By the project’s conclusion later this year, the UK will become the first country in the world to create a free-to-access online photographic showcase of its publicly-owned sculpture – much of which is in store, and is often not easy for people to find and see – for everyone’s enjoyment, learning and research.

Art UK Survey

The Art UK survey enabled us to re-examine previously overlooked sculptures in OIC’s collection. Further research by independent scholar, Dr Ben Whitworth, has highlighted information about the sitters and sculptors of two busts that links them to objects in Orkney Museum and other collections, 19th-century Orkney society, and wider contemporary artistic and cultural events. 

Bust of T.S. Traill by Edwin Lyon (1806-1853), 1827, plaster; accession number 2019.54
Detail of sculptor’s name and date

Dr Thomas Stewart Traill (1781-1862). Traill was born in Kirkwall and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He practised as a physician in Liverpool from 1805 to 1832, and was among the founders of the Royal Institution of Liverpool for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts. The Institution had its own art gallery, and Traill may have come into contact with local artists there. 

The plaster bust is inscribed with the sitter’s name on the front of the base: ‘T.S. TRAILL’. The artist, date and place of production are inscribed on the back of the shoulders: ‘Edwin Lyon 

Sculp[sit] / May 15 1827 L[iver]pool’. This bust was produced towards the end of Dr Traill’s time in Liverpool. His portrait in oils was painted at around the same time by the Liverpool artist Alexander Mosses; the painting is held by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. 

Traill went on to be Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Edinburgh University, and the editor of the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A silver salver, presented to Dr Traill in 1855 on his visit to Orkney after an absence of twenty-nine years, is also in the collection of Orkney Museum. He died in Edinburgh. 

This portrait bust is an early work by the sculptor Edwin Lyon. Lyon was born in Liverpool and took drawing lessons at the Liverpool Academy from 1824, becoming an associate member in 1828 and a full member four years later. He came to specialise in sculpture, working in plaster, wax and marble. In 1827, he exhibited work in London. 

In the mid-1830s he moved to Dublin, and by 1840 he had emigrated to America. He settled in Natchez, Mississippi and established a sculpture studio known as the Natchez Marble Yard. Portrait commissions formed the basis of his business, and his most notable work was a life-sized marble bust of Zachary Taylor, completed in 1848, the year before Taylor became President of the United States. Lyon died of yellow fever at the age of forty-seven. 

Facsimile of page from St Magnus Cathedral visitors’ book showing signatures of Gladstone’s party on their visit to Orkney in 1883; accession number 544

W.E. Gladstone (1809-1898) was a Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom four times. It was during his second term in office that Gladstone visited Orkney in September 1883, travelling aboard the Pembroke Castle with his friend, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and members of both their families. The politician and the poet were given the Freedom of the Burgh of Kirkwall.

The Museum collection includes a facsimile of the signatures of their party from the St Magnus Cathedral visitors’ book. During the following year, Gladstone’s secretary, Horace Seymour, wrote to Samuel Reid, Provost of Kirkwall, offering a portrait bust as a commemoration of the visit. This may well be the bust in question. 

Thomas Woolner was an early member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the only sculptor). Settling in London, he established himself as the leading portrait sculptor of his day with sitters including Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Darwin and John Henry Newman. 

Gladstone sat for Woolner twice. His marble portrait of 1882 showed the Prime Minister unclothed, in the tradition of Roman statuary. It was a commission from the Corporation of the City of London and, after being exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was placed in the Guildhall. A full-sized bronze cast of the bust was kept by Woolner in his studio. A reduced version (22.9 cm high), also in bronze, belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, London. Other casts were made, in various metals, including one in the National Gallery of Australia. 

The example in Orkney Museum’s collection is cast in a light metal – possibly an alloy of zinc and copper. The lower part of the bust is marked with three inscriptions: 

  • the sitter’s name – ‘W.E. GLADSTONE’; 
  • the sculptor’s signature and date – ‘T. Woolner Sc[ulpsit]/1882’; 
  • and the stamp of the manufacturer – ‘elkington & co’. 

The London-based Elkington Company held the British patent for the electroplating process. This technique might have been used to make this inexpensive cast metal bust look like a prestigious bronze. 

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