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John Steell was an important, Scottish-born sculptor of the nineteenth century. During the1820s Steell was elected an associate of the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland and in 1829 he became a member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Steell’s career was notable for both his own artistic achievements alongside the role which he played in the development of sculpture in his native Scotland.

In 1839 Steell created the first pediment group in stone to be carved in Scotland. This representation of the wise and foolish virgins can still be seen today at the Standard Life Assurance office at 3 George Street, Edinburgh close to the college. Perhaps even more significantly, Steell is credited with introducing large-scale marble carving into Scotland. His statue of Professor Blaikie for Aberdeen (completed 1844) was the first statue in marble to be completed in Scotland. His other works include the statue of the Duke of Wellington outside of Register House (Edinburgh) and the statue of Sir Walter Scott in the Scott Monument. Many of his works were also sent abroad, to locations including New York, Jamaica and Calcutta.

Unsurprisingly, Steell attracted numerous influential patrons, including Queen Victoria. These patrons often commissioned portrait works either in the form of a classicizing bust or funerary monument. Steell’s work is characterised by his fusion of classical and contemporary elements, with subjects usually wearing contemporary garments whilst the form and fall of their clothes is often fashioned to recall depictions of classically draped garments. It has also been suggested that his works idealise their subjects to a point, particularly in their refinement of characteristic features.

Steell is known to be responsible for busts of Sir Andrew Douglas MacLagan and James Warburton Begbie which can be found in the College's collection.