THE daylight is beginning to fade, illuminating Edinburgh in a wintry glow which the artificial lights of the festive season never quite seem to capture.
But they are not switched on yet, so on Rose Street the last few rays give a warmth to the bland brickwork of the exteriors of the Roxburghe Hotel and BT’s old telephone exchange building – a place once whirring with life, now eerily silent.
Only the art is making itself heard. Meticulously carved sheets of metal covering a string of windows, back-lit to give a three-dimensional glow, have come alive in the dusk, showing off their whimsical take on the George Mackay Brown poem Beachcomber, while further along painterly silhouettes of “amber mile” hostelries surrounded by giant roses cover another wall.
They are all the work of Edinburgh College of Art’s artist-in-residence, Astrid Jaekel, and are raising the volume in Rose Street, making the neglected west end of the thoroughfare a place where things are happening again.
The works have been installed to breathe life into the old street and give meaning to its buildings, all part of a £1 million plan to rejuvenate Rose Street by the areas’s business improvement organisation, Essential Edinburgh.
Astrid’s beautiful illustrations take the Orcadian poet’s work about a week at a beach and bring it to life in a swirling, undulating fashion. Flotsam and jetsam can be found strewn across seven windows of the old BT building, from a boot to a barrel-full of Spanish oranges, a sea captain’s hat to an old piece of timber to a mirror – all interspersed with the words of the poem, which begins “Monday I found a boot ...”
Though the boot Astrid has imagined is perhaps not the same as the poet had in mind. “Well, maybe he did,” she says with a laugh. “Knee-high boots were very Sixties, and the poem was published in 1971, so he may not necessarily have meant a workman’s boot. I also felt it said something about Rose Street being a very trendy place to be in the 60s – and perhaps it even reflects further back on its history when it was a place of prostitution. But then, that’s what the piece is all about, people can read into it what they like.”
Astrid was hired to cover the arched windows of the exchange building and the exterior end of the Roxburghe Hotel by Essential Edinburgh. “I was approached to do this more than a year ago, so there’s been a lot of work gone into the planning of it, especially in what poem to choose. Essential Edinburgh wanted to reflect the literary history of Rose Street. It was a place where a lot of influential Scottish writers would come to meet and drink, and they wanted that to be the pivotal idea behind the art. I know that Mackay Brown wasn’t as regular a visitor to Rose Street as some others, but he did come a lot while in Edinburgh in the 1950s and his poem really chimed with what I was hoping to do.”
She adds: “I work mostly in paper cutting, so I would do the design, about four times smaller than they now appear, and once it was all approved it was enlarged and then laser cut into steel which was given a powder coating. It’s fantastic seeing all the panels up, and because the poem is in seven parts as it’s about the days of the week, it fits perfectly with the space I had.”
But while the metalwork will remain as a permanent fixture for shoppers and tourists to enjoy, the Roxburghe Hotel’s wall will change every season with a different poem at its heart. Robert Louis Stevenson has appeared twice, but currently it is proclaiming the words of Edinburgh makar Ron Butlin’s A Recipe for Whisky.
“The fact that the poem changes is a lovely idea,” says Astrid, “Although the artwork around it will stay the same. Again, the images were created through paper cutting – this time they’re the pubs of Rose Street – and having them enlarged and printed onto vinyl. It’s amazing to think my work is permanently on public display.”
As well as Essential Edinburgh, the project was also supported by the Prince’s Foundation, BT and Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature.
Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, says: “Rose Street is a wonderful, popular and renowned street that for too long has lived a bit in the shadow of Princes Street and George Street.”
Originally named after the emblem of England when the New Town was being laid out by James Craig – the streets were named according to the wishes of the Hanoverian King, George III – Rose Street has long boasted pavement art through its eight different mosaic roses along its length. But for some years those who live and work there feel it’s been neglected.
Neal adds: “Our project is designed to ensure that people are even more encouraged to enjoy all that the street can offer through its ambience, shopping and its bars and restaurants.
“Astrid’s work will contribute significantly to that ambience, reflecting the place Rose Street has held in the hearts of many of Edinburgh’s best known poets over the years.”
In fact, the organisation – along with the council and newest tenant Primark – is investing £1m to transform the street into Edinburgh’s answer to Carnaby Street in London, by promoting its distinct range of independent boutique shops such as jewellers like Robert Anthony and Alistir Wood Tait, Rock Candy and Palenque, Goodstead and Creative Cookware. Then, of course, there are all the pubs – 15 of them which still makes it the place in Edinburgh for a pub crawl.
Essential Edinburgh also hopes to introduce pavement cafes and street entertainment to liven the place and create a friendly ambience, to encourage businesses to “spill out” on to the pedestrianised pavement, to string up bunting to celebrate sporting occasions, and architects are being asked for advice on how to make the place more appealing.
Astrid, who is based in Edinburgh College of Art’s Illustration department and who created a similar window project in Victoria Street in 2011, adds: “I think Rose Street is a little gem within Edinburgh’s centre and the series of developments Essential Edinburgh has commissioned for this place will further add to its uniqueness and charm.
“There are also plans for me to work on a series of projections, which will again involve the works of the Rose Street poets, but nothing has been fully decided on that yet.”
Also in the pipeline for Rose Street is street theatre, floral displays, new welcome signs, flag and lighting displays and market stalls.
The city council has also pledged to enforce a strict traffic ban and to “declutter” the area.
Neal says: “We want it to be more like Carnaby Street in London, with pavement cafes extended out into the street, live music and more of an effort made to attract people into the street, by brightening up the gable ends of buildings and putting up flags and bunting. Rose Street has changed a lot over the years with new restaurants and independent shops opening, but it felt a bit unloved.”
At least in one end of Rose Street, that feeling is beginning to disappear.