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The "most remarkable buildings of the city of Edinburgh" by the Honorable J. Elphinstone

The "most remarkable buildings of the city of Edinburgh" by the Honorable J. Elphinstone
The "most remarkable buildings of the city of Edinburgh" by the Honorable J. Elphinstone
As evidenced by the frontispiece page which opens this exhibition, the full title of the volume these images are taken from is, "Fifteen Views of the most remarkable buildings of the City of Edinburgh by the Honorable J. Elphinstone". Unfortunately, our copy of this volume contains only ten of the views and they are presented here in the order in which they appear in the volume.

These views of Edinburgh during the 1700s highlight some of the city’s most remarkable buildings of the time, several which endure as iconic landmarks today, and others which have since disappeared.

All images are credited to John Elphinstone although there is some uncertainty around the authorship of some of the pictures. The first three in the volume, (‘A view of the new-bridge of Edinburgh, with the adjacent buildings of the Old and New-Town’, ‘A view of the abby - church in ruins, from the north west’ and ‘A view of St. Roques - Church in ruins from the north east’ have a slightly different feel and style to the rest of the images.

We can be sure at least, that these depictions of buildings in Edinburgh date from the 18th century because they appear in Hugh Arnot’s ‘History of Edinburgh’, 2nd edition from 1788. He uses all fifteen views as illustrations (and an entry in the Dictionary of Scottish Artists credits Elphinstone as the author of those same illustrations).

One major discrepancy, in the dating of the Elphinstone volume and his authorship of all images, is the inclusion of the view of the ‘new-bridge’ crossing the divide between the Old and New Towns of the city. The bridge depicted is an earlier bridge to the one we are familiar with today which opened in 1897.

The original bridge consisted of three stone arches, was 346m long and building work commenced in 1765. John Elphinstone died in 1753.

Information from Arnot’s, History of Edinburgh, (page 313) says that:
“The Exchange being finished, the next object to which the magistrates of Edinburgh, and the trustees appointed by parliament for the improvement of the city, turned their attention, was to build a bridge of communication with the fields of the north, and to obtain over them an extension of the royalty. These were part of the original plan proposed for the improvement of the city, AD 1752…”

Again from Arnot:
“In AD 1763, the North Loch was drained, and the mud removed, in order to find a proper foundation…”
and the first stone was laid in 1763. The bridge was “well nigh compleated” [sic] when on 3 August 1769, the vaults and side walls on the south end of the bridge gave way, burying five people in the ruins.
Repairs were undertaken, and the first North Bridge reopened in 1772.

So, if the drawing of the New Bridge really does date from around 1740, could it be that this was an early artist’s impression of what was to come, rather than a drawing of what was there?

There is further doubt raised over the authorship of some of the images due to slight changes occurring in later editions of similar prints, also credited to John Elphinstone. In a small number of prints, peripheral details, such as figures are changed or omitted, or in the case of the image titled, ‘A perspective view of the palace of Holyrood House’, the high wall around Holyrood Palace has been altered to railings. However, we think it’s possible that the printing plates could have been passed on and amended, or copied and updated over time.

Regardless of the doubt over who created all of these images, they remain an interesting and valuable record of Edinburgh’s architecture and cityscape during the 1700s.