A stonemason and self-taught sculptor, he was born in Carluke, Lanarkshire, near the Clydesdale quarries where he worked until being ‘discovered’ by an army officer named Colonel Gordon. His first commission was for a life-size Highland Chieftain, followed by a statue of William Wallace, for Lanark (1817). Despite having acquired a secure reputation as a sculptor, in 1823 he began attending classes in drawing, modelling and anatomy in various private studios and schools, including the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh and Warren’s Academy in Glasgow. His education was continued in 1837 when he visited France and Italy. In 1832 he was given permission to set up a temporary exhibition hall beside the National Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, to display four colossal equestrian statues of historical figures, mostly carved from single blocks of sandstone weighing upwards of twenty tons. Although the exhibition was well received, and did much to enhance his reputation as Scotland’s ‘national sculptor’, it was not a financial success, and eventually proved ruinous. His 1825 statue of John Knox, carved from a design by William Warren, was the first sculptural monument to be erected in the Necropolis of Glasgow, and his most ambitious project was the design for a statue of the Duke of Wellington, commissioned by Lord Elgin for the summit of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. This was to have been eighty feet tall, but remained unexecuted after Lord Elgin’s death in 1841.
Bibliography: Anon., ‘The Lanarkshire Sculptor’, Chambers Edinburgh Journal, no.1 (1832), pp.357–58; Descriptive Catalogue of Statuary from the Chisel of Mr Robert Forrest, Edinburgh, 1835; R. Forrest, Descriptive Account of the Exhibition of Statuary, National Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1846, passim; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Edinburgh (2 vols), Liverpool, 2018, vol. 1, p. 203–04, 300, vol. 2, pp. 366–70, 411–20, 514; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Glasgow, Liverpool, 2002, pp. 293–99; Scottish Reformers Gazette, 4 April 1840, p.2.
Ray McKenzie 2018