Ned Holt’s 19th-century sketches go on show

Senior Curator Gillian Findlay at the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.
Senior Curator Gillian Findlay at the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.
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Some are so pitifully poor and down at heel they don’t even have shoes to cover their mucky feet.

Dressed in little more than rags, warts and all, they are the life and soul of day-to-day ­Edinburgh from a time gone by, brought together in a collection of fascinating ‘Victorians-R-Us’ characters who reveal the real face of the Capital.

Piper Campbell, part of the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.

Piper Campbell, part of the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.

Captured going about their day-to-day business – selling, begging, or singing for their supper – the images are miles away from the high society women and learned men whose sympathetic portraits showing fine features and even finer clothes, hang on the walls of the city’s major art galleries.

Yet it is this collection of ­colourful sketches of the 
19th-century men and women who made ‘ordinary’ Edinburgh tick, now on show for the first time, which quite probably ­uncovers the true face of the city.

Should you happen to come from generations of city folk born and bred, look closely at the faces and features captured by the artistic skills of Ned Holt, for it is entirely possible they could be your forefathers.

The collection of enthralling portraits sketched by Holt in the late 1800s includes people who, although larger than life in their day, would probably otherwise have been completely forgotten about.

Cracker Johnnie, part of the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.

Cracker Johnnie, part of the Ned Holt art exhibition in the Huntly Room at the Museum of Edinburgh.

Such as the jovial, rotund figure of Cracker Johnnie, weighed down by bags slung over his shoulders and holding high a set of nutcrackers to attract passers-by, or Heather Jock, with bulbous nose and lopsided grin, hair sprouting through the top of his hat competing with what could be sprigs of plants, stuffed there, ready to sell.

If not for the brushstrokes of Ned Holt, how could we possibly ever know about Lizzie – “a once famous sour milk seller” according to the artist – caught with a child’s dummy in her mouth and lacy bonnet, clutching two heavy tins of produce in her meaty arms?

Or, for that matter, Jock Gray, who sold “matches three a penny”, the sleeves of his jacket ragged but a defiant, proud look on his face?

According to Gillian Findlay, senior curator at the Museum of Edinburgh where the collection has just gone on show, the sketches offer a window on a slice of the life of Edinburghers who were too poor and too ordinary to otherwise be immortalised in such a way.

She says: “They are just street sellers, vendors and local characters that would otherwise have been forgotten about.

“Just normal folk, and it is why it is so wonderful to have them in a collection, particularly as the Museum of Edinburgh is dedicated to telling the stories of the ordinary, everyday people of the city, their lives and day-to-day work.”

Very little is known about Ned Holt, she adds. Why he chose to portray so many city characters – who would no doubt have been too pitifully poor to afford to buy his sketches for their own enjoyment – is a mystery.

“It’s what makes the collection even more interesting,” she says. “He wasn’t a decision-maker, not a governor, he didn’t have any influence on anyone else’s life. Apart from this collection he would have been forgotten along with his subjects.

“He painted people as they were, not caricatures. They’re not sentimental, affectionate portraits, but you feel that there is a relationship, they know each other and they’re not just passing them in the street.

“And when you focus on each characterisation, you can see their personality.”

There are about 20 sketches in the exhibition, some 
accompanied by a contemporary poem written by Holt enthusiast and writer Donald Campbell, who led the drive for the exhibition to be held.

In an introduction to the exhibition, he points out: “These paintings are not caricatures. Affectionate portraits they may be but they are in no way satirical. Ned Holt simply drew what he saw.”

Holt, he adds, was untutored other than a few lessons from an amateur artist who managed the Old Town Tavern.

“Perhaps this same acquaintance helped Holt to sell his work; all the paintings here originally decorated the walls of public houses, prior to being acquired by collectors such as the distinguished landscape painter Sam Bough,” he says.

Holt was born in the Grassmarket in 1815 but little else is known about his life other than he started work apprenticed to a baker called Wilkinson but quit to work instead as a showman. He later performed on stage, with regular lead roles with the company at Connors penny gaff at the foot of High School Yards.

He seems to have been successful – among the roles he ­became most associated with was Hamlet.

However, he came to a tragic end, fatally injured when he was hit by a cab in Joppa as he made his way home from Musselburgh Races in September 1892.

Many of his sketches were given to the city 30 years later, after a local councillor tracked them down from a private owner and rejected attempts from an American buyer in order to hand them over to the city collection.

Most are in a similar style, featuring a single character captured against a plain white background – in contrast to the highly elaborate portraits of the day that hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Gillian says: “They are not slapdash but done relatively quickly. All are in a similar style with very little work done in creating a background. It’s just the road they are standing on, usually nothing else.

“He is not trying to ‘spin’ it in any way, there’s no effort to dress it up.”

Among the most fascinating is a sketch, perhaps drawn from a childhood memory, of a bare-footed and ragged Daft Jamie.

“Daft Jamie was one of the final victims of Burke and Hare,” explains Gillian. “They met their comeuppance because Jamie was an excellent singer who used to frequent the pubs of the Grassmarket and Victoria Street where the medical 
students would hang out. When his body appeared one morning in front of them, they knew he had been in excellent health and fine singing voice and should not be there. That set alarm bells ringing that there was foul play at work.

“Another interesting story surrounds Sarah Sibbald – Apple Glory – who had a shop where the General Post Office building is at Waterloo Place. She had traded in the area for years and when the GPO was being built they incorporated a shop for her. She was so well known they built around her.”

Apple Glory’s image shows a jovial looking woman in lacy bonnet and red shawl, with rosy ‘apple’ red cheeks and warm, smiling features, while Gillian’s favourite image, of Register Rachel, depicts a weary looking woman with dark circles under her eyes and determined chin.

“It’s such a sad story,” she says. “She was betrothed to be married and went to Register House to meet her fiancé to tie the knot. However, he never showed up. She returned the next day and stood outside, again he didn’t turn up.

“She did that every day for years, waiting for him, a bit like Miss Haversham from Great Expectations.

“Eventually she set up a stall to sell her wares outside Register House.”

She adds: “I’m sure Ned would have loved to know his work is on show – particularly as some has gone to the Tate in London as part of a folk art ­exhibition.

“I hope that a lot of people will enjoy the exhibition, hopefully we can all look at these pictures and see something of the real Edinburgh looking back.”

n Victorian Edinburgh: The colourful world of Ned Holt, is at the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate, until June 29. See the images online at