Sir John Robert Steell RSA 1804-1892
Sir John Steell was the most eminent Scottish sculptor of his generation and is responsible for many monuments in Scotland and the UK, in addition to the work that was sent to India, New Zealand and the US. He was designated Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland by Queen Victoria in 1838. In 1849 he introduced fine art bronze casting to Scotland, creating the Grove Foundry in Edinburgh, the first foundry in Scotland, the initial purpose of which was to cast the Duke of Wellington (Princes Street, Edinburgh). The press at the time dubbed it the Iron Duke in bronze by Steell.
While Steell is best known for his public sculptures, such as his world-famous one of Robert Burns, portraiture was also of great importance to him. Demand for his work was great. It also, usefully, extended his contacts within the elite and consolidated his patronage for other larger projects. He benefitted too from the Victorian fashion for the portrait bust. With Steell’s most expensive bust coming in at £150 they were a manageable expense. A plaster replica could be got for as little as two guineas.
Steell adhered to the main elements of classical sculpture: Flavian use of drapery (the inclusion of a shoulder and bare chest); a smooth, matte finish to the surface; and uninscribed eyes. Within this he would include contemporary elements such as the hair, and there was always a sense of the person, both in terms of literal likeness but also of inner character. The vast majority of Steell’s output was eminent men of the day. Female sitters number very few.
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