Glasgow - City of Sculpture
By Gary Nisbet
Alexander MacDonald & Co.
(fl. c. 1820 - 1941)
Firm of monumental sculptors and granite quarriers founded by Alexander MacDonald, a crofter's son and stone cutter at 83 Queen Street, Aberdeen, and later at a four acre site at 121 Constitution Street, where he traded as a marble merchant and in polished granite, stone and slate from the Aberdeen Granite Works.

Also known as MacDonald & Leslie (1839-63) and MacDonald Field & Co., when MacDonald formed partnerships with the stonecutter William Leslie and architect Sydney Field (fl. 1864-83); the firm became A. MacDonald & Co. (fl. 1884-1906), with Robert Ferguson as a partner, and then Alexander MacDonald & Co. Ltd (1906-41).

The most important granite sculptors in Scotland, they specialized in the quarrying and carving of granite for cemetery monuments, public statues, fountains and architectural features such as polished, circular columns, ballustrades and carved ornament, and were responsible for introducing the machinery and processes that would revolutionize the industry and culminate with the production of the first important granite statue since the time of the Pharaohs.

Alexander MacDonald, of Johnstone (1794-1860) was born in Rannoch, Perthshire, and worked as a stonemason in the south of Scotland before settling in Aberdeen to work in granite as a stonecutter, c. 1820. Opening his is first workshop at 83 Queen Street, his invention of a machine to dress and polish granite simultaneously, revolutionized the production of granite monuments in the 1830s, and he soon became the first to export a polished granite obelisk to a London cemetery, Kensal Green, in 1832.

He was particularly interested in the granite sculptures of ancient Egypt, and visted the British Museum to study examples from their temples and monuments at Luxor and Carnac, with a view to adapting their designs and craftsmanship for his own monuments and architectural work.

His subsequent output in the Egyptian and Classical styles complemented the work of others in the arts at a time when the Egyptian Revival in architecture and design was at its height, and represents a major contribution to the development of the style and its popularity by making it a fashionable mode of death and commemoration.

His most important achievement, however, was his sculpting of the granite statue of George, 5th Duke of Gordon, Aberdeen, which he carved from a model by the London sculptor Thomas Campbell, in 1842-8. This was erected in the Castlegate and relocated to Golden Square in 1952.

The statue marked the beginning of a new era in the history of sculpture by proving that the lost arts of cutting, sculpting and polishing the hardest granite, as perfected by the ancient Egyptians, had been re-discovered, and that this renaissance had taken place in MacDonald & Leslie's yard in Aberdeen.

Carved from a 20 ton block of white granite quarried at Dancing Cairns, the statue was hailed at the time as 'the first granite statue made since the Ptolomies'.

Another of MacDonald's public monuments in Aberdeen is the 70ft (21m) obelisk in pink Peterhead granite to Sir James McGrigor, first erected in the quadrangle of Marischal College, and later moved to Duthie Park (c. 1851, relocated, c. 1890).

The quality of the firm's obelisks and monuments in the Greek, Gothic and Roman styles earned the firm medals at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and at other major international exhibitions, including three medals in Paris, 1867; Philadelphia, 1876; Paris, 1878; and Melbourne, 1880.

They also enabled MacDonald to amass a substantial fortune and to purchase two estates, Johnstone, from which he took his title as a Laird, and the smaller Shannanburn in Marycoulter.

MacDonald died of Bronchitis at his townhouse in Aberdeen, on 23 March, 1860. A bronze portrait medallion of him was commissioned for his gravestone from George Anderson Lawson in 1871, which was modelled from a photograph of him at the height of his career. The photograph was later reproduced in the Aberdeen Press & Journal, on 15 August, 1934.

On his death the firm consolidated its position as Scotland's premiere granite sculptors under the ownership of his son, Alexander MacDonald of Kepplestone, when it received Letters Patent as ‘Her Majesty’s Workers in Granite’ in 1867, after completing the Sarcophagus for Prince Albert at Frogmore, Windsor, designed by Marochetti .

Alexander MacDonald of Kepplestone (1837-84), despite being confined to a wheelchair after a stroke in 1864, oversaw the firm's rise to becoming Scotland's most successful and important firm of granite sculptors. It also trained many of the craftsmem who eventually started their own businesses, or worked in the many other granite firms that appeared as a result of the MacDonalds' innovations and influence in the industry.

His personal fortune enabled him to purchase the estate of Kepplestone, after which he took his title, and to pursue his passion for art and building a nationally renowned art collection through his acquaintances with the leading British painters and sculptors of the day.

His contacts include such luminaries as sculptors Joseph Edgar Boehm and George Anderson Lawson, and the painters G F Watts, Sir Noel Paton, G D Leslie, Sir Frederick Leighton, William MacTaggart and Edward Poynter, all of whose work and correspondence he collected.

Kepplestone died on 27 December, 1884, and was buried in St Machar's Cathedral Burial Ground, where his grave is marked with a colossal Classical sarcophagus in polished pink granite, which was produced by his firm.

His bequest of 150 contemporary paintings to the city formed the nucleus of Aberdeen’s civic art collection, and his papers, including letters from his artist friends, are held by Aberdeen City Archives (ACA: DD391). A marble bust of him by William Brodie , and a bust of the sculptor, is in the gallery's collection, and a photograph of him illustrated an article in the Aberdeen Journal (Lost - And Found Old Photograph of Well-Known Citizens), on 8 June, 1933.

The firm's innovations in mechanizing the prosesses for granite production and polishing enabled it to increase its workforce from about ten journeymen and a few apprentices in the 1840s, to upwards of 100 men and boys by the end of the century. They were also able to open branch offices in Glasgow, in Robertson Street and Byres Road, and to extend their operations to London, where they occupied premises at 369-75 Euston Road.

Throughout this time the MacDonalds formed partnerships with the architects William Leslie and Sydney Field, and the stone cutter Robert Ferguson, each of whom brought their own particular skill to the firm, and made their own contribution to the history of Scottish sculpture.

William Leslie (1802-79) was born at New Deer, and was apprenticed as a stonemason. After training as an architect, he designed a number of important buildings in the north east of Scotland, including the North Kirk, Aberdeen, and Craibster House. He was also the agent for the Duke of Sutherland from 1836-44, for whom he began the building of Dunrobin Castle. Joining MacDonald in 1839, he collaborated with him on the design for the statue of George, 5th Duke of Gordon (1842-8).

Leslie resigned from the partnership in 1863, when he decided to concentrate on his architectural work and a career in politics. He eventually became Aberdeen's Lord Provost, 1869-74, becoming William Leslie of Nethermuir.

His place was taken by another architect, Sydney Field, who joined the firm when Kepplestone assumed control of the firm on his father's death in 1860. Field was responsible for designing many of the firm's gravestones and for raising the standards of its craftsmanship to a level of a fine art. As an artist he brought inspiration and a feel for the aesthetic to his designs, many of which were still available from the firm's catalogue as late as the 1930s.

Living at Grandholm House, Field eventually sold his position to Robert Ferguson, who joined the firm at the end of Kepplestone's tenure in 1884, when the firm became MacDonald & Co. Ferguson brought his talents as an overseer and instructor to bear on the firm's workforce for over fifty years. A later manager was Henry Hutcheon, who was active in the 1930s.

The firm also produced monuments to designs by other sculptors and architects.

A considerable number of the firm's commissions in Glasgow were for monuments in the Necropolis and the city's other cemeteries:

These include the Necropolis monuments to James Jeffrey (1848), Robert Baird of Auchmedden (1856); shipbuilder Robert Barclay (of Barclay & Curle), which was designed by J T Rochead (1864); Anne Stephen (1867); Elizabeth Burges, which was co-produced and signed by the Glasgow based sculptors Galbraith & Winton (1867); as well as the monuments to William Darling (1868); and the plainer monument to Agnes Adam Eadie (1908).

The firm's most important contribution to the Necropolis is the monument to the Allan Family, of the Allan Line shipping company, which was designed by the future Sculptor Royal In Scotland, J P Macgillivray (1894-9). This was built in the style of the Erectheum in Athens, in pink granite, and with a pediment and a pair of bronze figures by Macgillivray. It also featured a now lost bronze double portrait panel, the gap it left now giving the monument the apppearence of a huge fireplace.

They also produced monuments for Sighthill Cemetery and the Southern Necropolis, as well as a granite monolith to Robert Cochrane in Hawkhead Cemetery, Paisley, which originally incorporated a bronze portrait medallion by Archibald Macfarlane Shannan (1900, medallion lost).

Their monuments in London cemeteries include the Egyptian style monuments for James Wilson (Wilson Pasha), a Scots engineer in Hampstead Cemetery, and Lt General Duncan Sim and Lt Colonel Charles Seton Guthrie in Kensal Green, and may have been involved with the monument to the 2nd Earl of Kilmorey at Brompton Cemetery,

The firm was also responsible for a number of public monuments and fountains throughout the country.

As MacDonald & Leslie they produced the simple James Crum Drinking Fountain in Glasgow's George Square (1861, restored, 2009), and the Martyrs' Memorial Drinking Fountain, Castle Street, which was later demolished and relocated to St Mungo Avenue without its architectural surround and lion mask water spout (1864, relocated c. 1984).

The firm also executed the pedestal for Joseph Edgar Boehm 's John Elder Monument in Elder Park, Govan (1869), and the marble 74th Highlanders Memorial, Glasgow Cathedral (c. 1883), which commemorates the regiment's casualties in the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, of 1882, and which features a dramatic marble relief of the battle within an Egyptian-style temple surround, surmounted by a majestic sphinx and trophy of military banners and accoutrements.

Amongst their works in England are the granite columns in St George's Hall, Liverpool, for architect C R Cockerell (1841-54); the fountains and ballustrades in Trafalgar Square, London; the granite work at Ashburnham Library, Cambridge; the Richard Vaughan Yates Memorial Drinking Fountain, Liverpool (1858); and a number of red granite drinking fountains ordered by the philanthropist Charles Melly in Liverpool (1858-89).

The team at glasgowsculpture.com is grateful to Chris Elliot for information on MacDonald's work in London cemeteries.



Sources:

  • Aberdeen Directory: 1824-1941;
  • Piggot’s Dictionary of Scotland, 1837;
  • Slater’s Royal National Commercial Dictionary of Scotland, 1852-96;
  • Black, p.54 (26);
  • Cavanagh [Yates Fountain], p. 156;
  • GG [Granite Fountain Gifted to the City], 26 January, 1861, p. 3;
  • GG [Inauguration of Martyrs Monument], 10 May, 1864, p. 3;
  • www.ifb.net/webit/statues.htm The Essential Guide to Aberdeen - City Statues;
  • Fraser, p. 160 (ill.);
  • Rhind, p. 10 (ill.);
  • Williamson et al. ;
  • ML : Glasgow Scrapbook, no. 3 [The Martyrs’ Stone at the Cathedral], p. 135;
  • Aberdeen Free Press (Obituary, Alexander MacDonald), 6 April, 1860;
  • Aberdeen Journal (portrait, MacDonald of Kepplestone), Lost - And Found Old Photograph of Well-Known Citizens, 8 June, 1933;
  • Aberdeen Journal (portrait, Alexander MacDonald), Granite Polishing has Had Romantic History, 15 August, 1934 (ills.);
  • Aberdeen City Archives: DD391: Papers of Alexander MacDonald of Kepplestone and his trustees;
  • Aberdeen City Archives: DD391/13/18: Letter from G A Lawson to MacDonald of Kepplestone, 12 April, 1871;
  • Patrick Neill: emails to Gary Nisbet (Melly Fountains), 29 December, 2005;
  • http://www.liverpoolmonuments.co.uk/melly.html;
  • http://www.liverpoolmonuments.co.uk/mellycharles02.html;
  • Tom Donnelly (1994) The Aberdeen Granite Industry;
  • John McLaren (1987) Sixty Years In An Aberdeen Granite Yard The Craft And The Men;
  • John S Reid (1990) Mechanical Aberdeen Industries and Services 1888-1913;
  • Chris Elliot: e-mail to Gary Nisbet, 24 May, 2007;
  • Joseph Sharples (2004) Liverpool (ill.);
  • W A Brogden (1985) Aberdeen An Illustrated Architectural Guide, p. 33;

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