The foremost sculptor in nineteenth-century Scotland. Born in Aberdeen, but resident from an early age in Edinburgh, he was the eldest son of the wood carver John Steell and the brother of the animal painter Gourlay Steell (1819–1894). During his late teens and early twenties, his education was divided between an apprenticeship with his father, intermittent periods of tuition at the Trustees’ Academy, and a short study trip to Rome (1829), where he almost certainly came into contact with fellow Scots sculptors Thomas Campbell, Alexander Handyside Ritchie and Laurence Macdonald. His earliest recorded commissions were for architectural works, all now removed or destroyed, including, in Edinburgh, a colossal oak statue of St Andrew on the façade of the North British Mercantile Insurance Company on St Andrew Square, a figure group in stone for the Widows’ Fund Insurance Company, also on St Andrew Square, and a wooden coat of arms in the pediment of the Theatre Royal, on Shakespeare Square. It was, however, the sensational success of his plaster model of Alexander and Bucephalus in 1833 that thrust him into the forefront of the arts in Scotland, and paved the way for his domination of the practice of monumental sculpture in Edinburgh for the next half century. The key milestones in the progress of his long and productive career begin in 1838 with his commission for a statue of Queen Victoria on the Royal Institution, Princes Street, Edinburgh, and culminate in his award of a knighthood in 1876 at the inauguration of his multi-figure National Memorial to the Prince Consort in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. During that time, he became the first sculptor in Scotland to carve a full-scale figure group in the pediment of a building (Standard Life, George Street, Edinburgh, 1839), the first to receive a commission for a statue in marble (Sir Walter Scott, completed 1846), and, most importantly of all, the first to cast a statue in bronze, for which he established his own foundry in Grove Street, Edinburgh, in 1849. In addition to the eleven major monuments he erected in Edinburgh, he produced many statues for other parts of Scotland and beyond, including Dundee, Irvine, London, New York, Jamaica and Calcutta. He was actively involved in the Scottish art establishment throughout his career, becoming a full Royal Scottish Academician as early as 1829, and exhibiting at the Academy’s annual shows from 1827 to 1889. Yet another ‘first’ was his appointment as Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland in 1838. In 1887 he was awarded a Civil List pension of £100 per annum. By this time, old age and failing health had driven him into de facto retirement, and in March 1888 he arranged for the ‘working plant and models’ remaining in his studio on Randolph Place to be sold by auction. The results were disappointing, and despite reserve prices set modestly between three and twenty guineas, not one of the full-size models for statues such as Alexander and Bucephalus and the Monument to the Duke of Wellington received a single bid. It is presumed that their eventual fate was to go ‘under the hammer’ in a more literal sense. Many of his plaster casts of historic works, such as four panels from the Elgin Marbles, did, however, find their way into the collection of the University of Edinburgh, and there is a symbolic aptness in the purchase by his former pupil David Watson Stevenson of a ‘box containing modelling tools made and used by Sir John Steell’ for one guinea. Steell died on 15 September 1891 and was interred in the Old Calton Burying Ground.
Sources: Graves, R. E. (rev. R.L. Woodward), ‘Sir John Steell (1804-1891)’, ODNB, (2004), 2005; Scotsman: (i) 14 March 1888, pp. 6, 16; (ii) September 1891, p. 7 (obit.).
Ray McKenzie 2018
Thomas Annan, John Robert Steell, photograph, c.1860; National Galleries of Scotland
(photo: Creative Commons CC BY-NC)