Fascinating 1750 painting shows central Edinburgh before the New Town

Predating the construction of the New Town by a generation, it shows a forgotten Edinburgh on the cusp of enlightenment that would have been familiar to the likes of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Deacon Brodie and David Hume.

By David McLean
Tuesday, 27th October 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th October 2020, 1:15 am
The BL King’s Topographical Collection: "Edinburgh & the north lock [sic] with the bank on which the new town is built."
The BL King’s Topographical Collection: "Edinburgh & the north lock [sic] with the bank on which the new town is built."

Originally in the collection of King George III, the watercolour, titled “Edinburgh & the North Lock [sic] with the bank on which the new town is built”, was published around 1750, within just five years of the brief Jacobite Rebellion when the forces of Charles Edward Stuart briefly occupied the Capital.

It was the work of a young English map-maker turned landscape painter, Paul Sandby, who would go on to become one of the founding members of London’s Royal Academy in 1768.

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Painted in an accurate fashion from what is now the esplanade of the Castle, the fascinating work shows a slice of central Edinburgh the majority of the population still lived in multi-storey stone and timber tenements in the Old Town.

Bereft of its neoclassical monuments, a bald Calton Hill overlooks a vacant strip of land to the immediate north of a body of water, known locally as the Nor’ Loch, which would be drained in stages over the next few generations to become Princes Street Gardens.

Nestled in what is now the Waverley valley, Sandby has included the ancient Trinity College Kirk, founded in 1460 by Mary of Gueldres and demolished in the mid-nineteenth century during an expansion of Waverley Station.

The first phase of the New Town, including Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street, is entirely absent from the view, which predates James Craig’s famous 1767 grid plan for the new Georgian Edinburgh.

Sandby has also included the poet Allan Ramsay’s house on the northern slope of the Castle rock. Built in 1740, Ramsay’s home was nicknamed “Goosepie House”, due to its unusual octagonal shape, which resembled a pie tin.

One key structure which is missing from the Hanoverian Edinburgh is the North Bridge, which in 1767 would link the Old Town to the new developments to the north as the city’s bold 18th century expansion gathered steam.

The columns, capitals and pediments which gave rise to Edinburgh being dubbed the Athens of the North and underlined the city’s status as a northern hub of the European Enlightenment are yet to be envisaged.

In the far distance, we can see the expanse of the Firth of Forth open out to the north of the port town of Leith.

Sandby's view of Edinburgh belong to George III, who amassed a vast collection of topographical maps and illustrations from all over Great Britain and the then British Empire during his lifetime.

Now in the possession of the British Library, the King’s Topographical collection, which is comprised of approximately 30-40,000 maps, plans and views and dating from between 1500 to 1824, was donated to the nation by George IV in 1828.Included in the collection is the ‘Duke’s Plan’ of New York', which was made to celebrate capture of New Amsterdam by the English from the Dutch in 1664.

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