Engraving in the Square

Engraving was an important craft in Edinburgh at the time of the Painting.  John C Guy (1916) gives an excellent account of the history of engraving in Edinburgh from which this account is largely derived[1].  The art of engraving pictures on metal from which multiple copies could be made was well developed in Germany and Italy in the 16th century but did not reach Scotland until a century later. Richard Cooper (1701-1764), one of the earliest engravers in Scotland, introduced the teaching of the subject in the Academy of St Luke in Edinburgh of which he was one of the founders in 1729. His son Richard Jr. followed him in the profession.

One of Cooper’s students, who lodged in his master’s house, was Robert Strange (1721-1792).

Engraving by Robert Strange of his portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

A M Hind in his A short History of Engraving (1911) p204, described him as the greatest English classical engraver of his day. (Actually Strange was an Orcadian). He became engaged to Isabella, sister of Andrew Lumisden (1720-1802) who was secretary to Prince Charles and under their influence he became an ardent Jacobite and fought for the Pretender at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.  After Culloden, Andrew Lumisden fled with Prince Charles to Rome where he acted as Secretary of State to the exiled Jacobites. His brother-in-law Strange engraved a portrait of the Prince based on a portrait by Alan Ramsay.

Engraving by Strange (L) of Alan Ramsay’s portrait of Prince Charles Edward (R). The Prince is wearing the blue sash and silver star of the Order of the Garter

At the request of the Prince he engraved a plate for the printing of paper money for the use of his troops. Strange produced the plate, engraved for sums ranging from one penny to six pennies, but before they could be printed the Prince had been beaten by the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden. In 1835 the copper plate was discovered in Loch Laggan. A M. Hind, who wrote the account of this discovery, managed to make a print from it (which Strange and not had the opportunity to do). The print, shown below, reveals the extent to which the plate had deteriorated during its abandonment. 

A print of Strange’s engraving for paper money intended to be used by Prince Charles forces.

After the defeat Strange married Isabella Lumisden and fled to France to avoid punishment before the general amnesty of 1748. In Paris he continued to study his art, adding the technique of etching to his engraving skill. Later he spent a few years in Italy where he won great repute and was made a member of the Academies of Rome, Florence and Paris. On his return to England he was denied membership of the recently founded Royal Academy of Arts on the ground that engravers were ineligible. Strange regarded this as a personal attack and vented his irritation in a paper entitled An inquiry into the recent establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts (1775). Strange was not alone for William Blake the poet, painter and engraver was likewise denied membership and he also vented his anger against Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Academy, in his poetry. Strange’s skills were however widely recognized and he was knighted by George III in 1787 for his skilled portraiture (which included the King’s children).

Strange specialised in engraving eminent citizens from paintings by other artists. Among these were van Dyke’s paintings of Queen Henrietta Maria and her children including the future Charles II whose statue now occupies Parliament Square.

Strange’s engraving of the children of Charles I from a painting by van Dyke. The future Charles II is on the R

Another engraving by Strange was the Edinburgh physician Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713) from a painting by Sir John Medina.

Dr Archibald Pitcairne, an eminent physician, was one of the founders of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, He had a close connection with Parliament Square for he consulted his patients there in Keggie’s tavern. The entrance was directly opposite the east window of St Giles. Pitcairne would see his patients there in a dark cellar starting at 6.30am and would sometimes stay there for several days, his servant bringing a change of clothing from time to time

Pitcairne was a lover of wine and like Strange an ardent Jacobite.  On his death he left a jeroboam of wine to be drunk at the restoration of a Stuart king.  In 1800, when it became apparent that this was unlikely to come about, a party of doctors from the Royal College of Physicians restored Pitcairne’s grave stone in Greyfriar’s churchyard which had fallen into disrepair and used this ‘restoration’ as a legitimate excuse for broaching the wine which they found palatable long after Pitcairne’s death. Keggie’s tavern was destroyed with many other properties in the fire of June 1824

The restored gravestone of Pitcairne in Greyfriar’s Churchyard

Another memorable engraving by Strange was of a painting by J M Rymsdyke of a dissection of the gravid uterus, reproduced in W Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1851). This image was praised by the eminent Professor of Obstetrics, James Young Simpson, for its accuracy.

Engraving by Strange of J M Rymsdyke’s painting of a dissection of the gravid uterus

Another of Cooper’s students, and a contemporary of Strange, was Andrew Bell, who engraved the illustrations for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of which he was one of the founders.

One of Bell’s many engravings in Encyclopaedia Britannica

Engraving became an increasingly important component of the publishing enterprise. Inevitably some of the Edinburgh engravers were based in Parliament Square.  Peter Williamson in his Edinburgh Directory 1790-1792 records five engravers within Parliament Square and one in the adjacent Luckenbooths.  In the Painting and the engraving by Le Conte, at the right end of the shops attached to St Giles, above the shop of Green Watchmaker, it is just possible to make out the name of Petrie Engraver.

The premises of Petrie Engraver in the Le Conte engraving

John Kay sold his engravings from his shop in the south side of the Square which was the location from which the Painting was made and of which Kay was most probably one of the artists together with David Allan.  Both these artists are considered more fully in the ‘Mystery of the Artist’. David Allan was also an engraver and one of the first to use and teach the etching technique of aquatinting in Edinburgh.  Kay, who had no formal training in art, also used aquatinting late in life and it is likely that he was introduced to the technique by Allan.

Allan’s aquatint of a crippled beggar

The Kirkwood Dynasty

One of the most notable families of engravers in Edinburgh started its existence in Parliament Square in 1786 and continues to this day although no longer in the Square. An excellent account of the family is given in Kirkwood & Sons, Copper Plate Engravers by Peter Symes (1999).  James Kirkwood (1745-1827), the founder, started his career as a clock and watchmaker in Perth but changed to become an engraver specialising in the printing of banknotes which had been introduced into Scottish banking by the Bank of Scotland in 1696.  Sir William Forbes employed him in 1782 to produce the one guinea and five pound notes for his private bank (see Banking in the Square). It is thought that it was Forbes who encouraged Kirkwood to move to Edinburgh to set up his business in Parliament Stair adjacent to the Forbes Bank. In 1805 the firm moved to 19 Parliament Square. The Kirkwood firm dominated banknote engraving in Scotland for thirty years.

Kirkwood’s engraving of the Forbes one guinea bank note showing Parliament House at the time of the Painting – before Reid’s new façade. 

In 1799 James son, Robert Kirkwood (1774-1818), joined the family firm which became James Kirkwood and Son.  Robert invented an improved printing press which greatly speeded the process of printing.  His specialty was the production of maps.  His Plan of the City of Edinburgh and its Environs is one of the finest early plans of Edinburgh and has been much used in the preparation of this study.

Extract from Robert Kirkwood’s Plan of the City of Edinburgh

James Kirkwood retired in 1814, aged 68, leaving Robert in charge.  Robert had five sons, four of whom became involved int the family business. One son, John, set up a branch in Dublin.  Robert Jr (1798-1843) became manager in 1823 when the firm was in process of moving from Parliament Square to 166 High St at the head of Old Assembly Close.  It was in this premise that the Great Fire of 15th November 1824 commenced. A pot of linseed oil, used in the preparation of printing ink, caught fire and spread rapidly out of control.  The workshop was destroyed together with the firm’s store of engraved copper plates.  The firm then moved to 11 South St Andrew Street in the New Town.  Under Robert Jr’s guidance the firm adopted the new engraving technique of lithography and began the production of terrestrial globe maps.

The firm was much involved as one of the printers of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia  (1830) and many of the illustrations in this 18 volume work were made by Kirkwood and Son.

Illustrations from the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia by Kirkwood and Wilson

Alexander Kirkwood (1804-1879), another son of Robert Sr, became expert in the arts of die and stamp cutting and left the firm in 1826 to set up on his own business in 10 North St Andrew Street where he was joined by his son Alexander Jr.  In Scotland To-day (1890), Alexander Kirkwood and Son is listed as ‘Medallists, Die Sinkers, Seal Engravers, Stamp Cutters, Military Ornament Makers, Silversmiths, Platers and Gilders.’ This branch of the Kirkwood clan became the leading medal maker in Scotland and it is this branch, Alexander Kirkwood and Son, which continues to this day.  The original family business was sold in 1849.

The current proprietor of Alexander Kirkwood & son is David Kirkwood who is the fifth generation to manage the business, now in 52 Jane St, Edinburgh EH6 5HG. It continues to flourish as a medalist, silversmith, engraver and trophy maker.  Two of its most famous dies are the solid silver dies created for the Great Seal of Scotland. The Seal is attached to official documents to confer royal assent by the reigning Monarch and has to be changed from reign to reign. The firm also makes the crest plates for each of knights of the Order of the Thistle which mark their allotted stall in the Thistle Chapel of St Giles Cathedral.

L an example of the Great Seal of Scotland for Charles II made before the Kirkwood era. R the Great Seal of Scotland for Elizabeth II cast from a metal die made by A Kirkwood and Son.

An example of the firm’s skill as medallists is the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, which is awarded for outstanding public service in which geography has played a part.  Recipients include Edward Shackleton, Edmund Hilary, David Attenborough and Michael Palin.     

John James Audubon and Edinburgh engraving 

In 1826 the eminent American bird painter, John James Audubon (1785-1851), set sail for Europe in the hope of finding an engraver who could undertake the task of engraving his massive life-sized paintings.  He landed at Liverpool where he was advised that London or Paris would be most likely to provide this facility.  Before visiting these cities, Audubon decided to visit Edinburgh as a tourist for he ‘longed to see the men and the scenes immortalized by the fervid strains of Burns and the glowing eloquence of Scott and Wilson.’[2]

In Edinburgh he was introduced to the engraver William Home Lizars  (1788-1859) who offered to undertake the engravings and proceeded to produce the first six to Audubon’s great delight – at last he could see the possibility of his life’s ambition being fulfilled.  The task was considerable – the paintings which measured 75 by 100cm had to be engraved on large and expensive copper sheets and then transferred to paper in a large press.  A team of colourists then copied the details of the artist’s painting onto the engraved print.

It was time consuming and expensive process but the fact that it could be done in Edinburgh was a measure of the remarkable advance of engraving skills which had developed in a relatively short space of time.  Lizars had learned his skill from his father Daniel Lizars Sr. (1754-1812), who in turn had been trained by Andrew Bell in Parliament Square and had his own workshop in one of the stairs leading up to the Square.      

Cartography in the Square

Cartography was another craft which required skilled engraving. Several of the mapmakers whose work has been used in illustrations for this book operated from premises in Parliament Square.  Reference has been made above to the contribution of the Kirkwood family in this connection. Cartography was one of Andrew Bell’s skills. Bell’s Plan of the City Edinburgh (1773) was created in his workshop in the south side of the Square. 

Extract from the Plan of the City of Edinburgh (1773) by Bell

John Ainslie (1745-1828) was another cartographer who worked in the Square until he moved to the New Town in 1788.  Illustrations from his map Old and New Town of Edinburgh (1804) have been used in this study. Ainslie produced many maps covering the whole of Scotland and was unusual in having the rare ability of being able to do the surveying, engraving and publishing by himself.[3]  Thomas Brown and James Watson produced their Plan of the City including all the Latest Improvements (1793) from their shop in the Square.  Robert Kirkwood (1774-1818) produced his splendid Plan of the City of Edinburgh and its Environs (1817), from his workshop at 19 Parliament Square which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1824.

Two world famous map publishing firms developed in Edinburgh during the 19th century, John Bartholomew and Son was established in 1826 and flourished under the management of five generations of the family until 1995 when it merged with Harper Collins. George Bartholomew, the father of John, learned his trade as an apprentice to Daniel Lizars Sr. whose workshop was in the backstairs leading to Parliament Close.  The mapmaking firm of W and A K Johnston also had a connection with Parliament Square for the two founding brothers, William and Alexander Keith Johnston, had served their apprenticeship with Robert Kirkwood in the Square. This distinguished firm survived until the 1960’s.

Maps made by several of the listed engravers have been used to illustrate this website.



[1] Guy J C (1916) Edinburgh Engravers BOEC 9 P79-113

[2] Audubon J J (1831) Ornithological Biography I p xv

[3] Edinburgh Mapping the City p99