Real Lives: Who was Sir John Steell?

Historian feature

By Carolyn O’Hara, published 25th August 2022

Our series ‘Real Lives seeks to put the story of the ordinary person into our great historical narrative. We are all part of the rich fabric of the communities in which we live and we are affected to greater and lesser degrees by the big events that happen on a daily basis. Sometimes we might even play a part in the big events, although our names are not recorded, while on other occasions we are witnesses to events and times which we would now consider remarkable. Sometimes our regular lives are the perfect illustration of how people live at any given time – but all our lives matter and we want to celebrate some of those lives here. If you have any people that you think might also fit this category and would like to write about them, please do contact: 

During his long career, Scottish sculptor Sir John Steell was responsible for a number of firsts: Edinburgh’s Standard Life Assurance Office building boasts the first Scottish stone group pediment, created by Steell. He also introduced large scale marble carving to Scotland, and established the Grove Foundry, in Edinburgh, where fine art bronze casting began.

However, most ground-breaking of all for the arts in Scotland, where earlier generations of talented, ambitious, Scottish sculptors had found themselves with no choice, owing to market conditions, but to seek their fortunes from a base like London, or European cultural centres, Steell proved to be the first Scottish sculptor to conduct his international career whilst steadfastly remaining in Scotland’s capital.

So how did he come to be commissioned to provide a statue of Robert Burns for New York’s Central Park?...