The History of Leith

June 1, 2011

The Mitchell Memorial in South Leith Parish Church

The Mitchell Memorial in South Leith Parish Church
Designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864 -1929) and sculpted by Louis Reid Deuchars (1870 -1927)
Sir Robert Lorimer was one of Scotland’s best known architects. He was knighted for his work on the Thistle Chapel, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Louis Reid Deuchars, my grandfather, was a sculptor who was born in Comrie, Perthshire in April 1870. During his career he worked with leading artists, sculptors and architects and exhibited in all the major art galleries. After a period in the south of England, he arrived in Edinburgh in 1908 to work as an assistant to the sculptor, James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, at that time engaged on the Gladstone memorial.1 When they parted after a disagreement, Deuchars was fortunate to be given work for the Thistle Chapel by Lorimer. The Strathearn Herald in January 1911 reported that ‘Mr Deuchars has been these past two years engaged on the sculpture which decorates the new chapel of St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, and has modelled all the angels, saints and figures for that building’.2 Joseph Hayes and his men carved the stone figures from Deuchars’s models and W. & A. Clow did the wooden ones. For each subject Deuchars made a plaster cast, or maquette, from his original clay model and the carvers worked from that. Once again in 1913 it was The Strathearn Herald which told of Deuchars’s involvement in the Mitchell Memorial in South Leith Parish Church and a search of Lorimer’s office papers in the University of Edinburgh Library provided further information.3
Early in 1912 Lorimer received a commission for a memorial to the late Dr James Mitchell, who had been the minister in South Leith for forty years until 1903. During that period he had been instrumental in setting up a soup kitchen and a clothing society to help alleviate some of the grinding poverty among the dock workers of his parish, which led to him founding the Leith Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. He had also been actively involved in Leith Hospital Board, the Leith School of Science and Art and other areas of public life. It is little wonder, then, that the architect of the
Thistle Chapel was selected to create a memorial to such ‘a phenomenon’.4
In March 1912, Lorimer attended a meeting of the Memorial Committee, where he submitted estimates and left them with a drawing, photographs and patterns of some material.5 This original plan involved moving a door, but John Warrack, a friend of Lorimer and a member of the committee, wrote to him that this had not found favour with the members and he was asked to present a revised proposal. Warrack also wrote, ‘I should mention that some of the Committee had heard suggestions that the figure of Charity might be construed as an image, and as it seems Jacob Primmer is a member of the
Church they want to be careful that it cannot be taken for a saint.’6 Jacob Primmer, a well-known and consistent campaigner against ‘Popery’ in the Church of Scotland, had alleged that the figures on the font (1908) in St. Cuthbert’s Church in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh were representations of the Virgin and child’ and as such ‘in violation of the Constitution, laws, and usages of the Church of Scotland.’ He took his allegations to the General Assembly of the Church, where they was rejected.7

It is therefore not surprising that the Memorial Committee were nervous about the form of design for the Leith church. Lorimer prepared another drawing and it was ‘placed in situ in the church…so that all interested might have an opportunity of inspecting it.’8 Joseph Hayes submitted an estimate of £291, including £110 for Allan & Sons, an Edinburgh firm of monumental sculptors, ‘for supplying the material, masonwork and erecting’ (to which Lorimer added £40 for his fee), on 2 May 1912.9 Warrack’s earlier concern was followed up
in June by the minister’s. Reverend William Swan wrote to Lorimer, The debate in the General Assembly on the St. Cuthbert Font must have reminded you of my anxiety that the allegorical figure of Charity in the Mitchell Memorial should have nothing whatever about it suggesting of a Madonna and Child. I am depending on you therefore to have an original design, which will be quite free from anything that suggests Romanism. It is simply my desire 1. to remain true to the Reformed Faith and 2. to maintain peace here that prompts me to send you this little reminder’.10However, Lorimer’s revised design must have met with approval and work began. From Deuchars’s plaster models, Joseph Hayes carved the figures in trieste marble, with verde antico, a green marble, providing a striking contrast.
The minister enquired in July if it might be finished by October and asked if any friends of the late Dr Mitchell were required to see the portrait medallion while it was being executed.11 Instead, it seems that in October, D. Robertson, the Session Clerk, sent a number of photographs of the deceased for the benefit of the sculptor. He singled out ‘a large framed one which Mr Swan and myself think is the best one to be followed’ and cautioned, ‘this large one has been got by me on loan and I am under the obligation to return it uninjured.’12 Charles Henshaw, a firm of architectural metalworkers, cast the portrait medallion in bronze. However, it was not until January of the following year that all was ready to be erected in the church.13 The impressive memorial^ featuring Deuchars’s unmistakable modelling, on the wall of the south aisle was unveiled on 2 February 1913 by Dr Wallace Williamson.14 The relief group in the niche in the upper panel, entitled ‘Charity’, about which the committee members were so concerned, consists of a classicly draped female figure, holding a baby, while two other toddlers cling to either side of her dress. There are some similarities to the St. Margaret group which Deuchars modelled for the Thistle Chapel, but in this case, the children are younger and unclothed, conveying a vulnerability which is recognised and provided for by the allegorical figure of ‘Charity’. The
composition may have been based on ‘Charity’ painted by G. F. Watts in 1898, when Deuchars was employed as an assistant to him at Compton near Guildford.15 With the inclusion of three naturalistically modelled children in the Mitchell memorial, there could be no claim that the composition was a representation of the Madonna and Child. Deuchars was also responsible for the two angels holding the memorial tablet. Beneath that is the sensitive bronze bas relief medallion of Dr Mitchell in his ministerial robes, a posthumous portrait from the photographs sent to Lorimer. Deuchars was able to demonstrate his skill in transforming a two dimensional image to three. However good the memorial is, the claim that ‘it is expected that this will be the most impressive and artistic monument in Edinburgh’ was somewhat exaggerated in the letter by a family friend published in The Strathearn Herald™ But its success ensured that Deuchars continued to produce sculpture for Lorimer until the early 1920’s.
Later in 1913 D. McLeod of the church, asked Lorimer for shields of the Incorporation of Tradesmen to be placed on the wall near the memorial.17
© Louise M Boreham, 12 May 2003
Information based largely on Louis Reid Deuchars (1870 – 1927) and the
Relationship between Sculptors and Architects, Ph D thesis, Edinburgh
College of Art, December 1997.
1 Coates Crescent Gardens, Edinburgh.
2 ‘A Comrie – Born Artist’, ‘Comrie Notes’, Strathearn Herald, 7 January 1911.
3 ‘A Noted Artist – A Native of Comrie’, ‘Letters to the Editor’, The Strathearn Herald, 11
January 1913. Uncatalogued Lorimer Papers (U.L.P.), Special Collections Department,
University of Edinburgh Library
4 Marshall, James Scott, The Church in the Midst (Edinburgh, 1983) pp. 177-185.
5 Lorimer’s memo. 18 March 1912. GEN 1963/44/22. U.LP.
6 Letter from Warrackto Lorimer, 1 April 1912. GEN 1963/44/23. U.L.P.
7 Muir, Very Rev. Dr McAdam, Convenor, Report of the Committee to Inquire with reference
to the Baptismal Font in St. Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh to the General Assembly of the
Church of Scotland (1912) p.893. Ref. CH2/718/307. SRO.
8 Letter from D. McLeod, South Leith Parish Church, to Lorimer, 2 May 1912. GEN
1963/44/25. U.L.P.
9 ‘South Leith Parish Church. Mitchell Memorial. Details of Mr. Joseph Hayes’s Estimate’, 2
May 1912. GEN 1963/53. U.L.P.
10 Postcard from Rev. William Swan to Lorimer, 4 June 1912. GEN 1963/44/27. U.L.P.
11 Postcard from Rev. Swan to Lorimer, 10 July 1912. GEN 1963/44/29. U.L.P.
12 Letter from D. Robertson, Session Clerk to Lorimer, 4 October 1912. GEN 1963/44/30.
Letter from Joseph Hayes to Lorimer, 6 January 1913. GEN 1963/44/33. U.L.P.
Marshall, James Scott, 7776 Church in the Midst (Edinburgh, 1983) p.197.
15 Glasgow Art Gallery & Museum, Kelvingrove.
16 ‘A Noted Artist – A Native of Comrie’, ‘Letters to the Editor’, TTie Stratheam Herald, 11
January 1913.
17 Letters from D. McLeod to Lorimer, 6 & 23 January, 1913. GEN 1963/44/34 & 35. U.L.P

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