The hammer has gone down and a record amount of money has been achieved for a work of art: $450 million for Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. What is there to say? Lots. So much that I don’t know where to start. Instead, I am going to champion free art – how to enjoy splendour without spending a penny. There are wonderful galleries and museums in this city and, at this time of year, when your nose smarts with cold, they are inviting, warming, enveloping spots to wile away some time. And I do: modern art gallery, portrait gallery, national gallery, national museum, tapestry gallery, they go on and on – free beauty abounds, as well as shelter from the winter bite! Edinburgh is a walking city, and as long as it is dry (as it has been lately) and I am well wrapped up, then it is a pleasure to stride the streets. Sometimes I’ll have a basic plan, a bit of a route, point myself in a certain direction, but often I don’t. I still see myself as one of Edinburgh’s newer residents, and I feel that the city returns my gaze in the same way as I look upon it: fresh and eager, encouraging me to stop and stare and wonder.
I encountered my first display of public art at the top of Leith Walk. Two majestic giraffes, a mother and calf, bring the scrap metal from which they are fashioned to a new level of loveliness. And I can touch them! Much as I enjoy going to galleries, my hands move, like a magnet to a fridge, towards the ‘do not touch’ signs. We’re all the same – nothing kindles an otherwise un-thought of urge to touch and feel like being told you are forbidden to do so. Out on the street, though, you can touch and feel and rub and not worry about children climbing on the artwork. Well, you might worry for a different reason; for example, if they were to make it anywhere near the top of one of the giraffes! All hail sculpture artist, Helen Denerley, and her ‘Dreaming Spire’ giraffes, raised heavenward and made from car and motorcycle parts. They are so marvellously out of place, yet right at home, in an Edinburgh street.
Outside St Mary’s Cathedral on Picardie Place, just a stone throw from the giraffes, are two pieces called, ‘Manuscript of Monte Cassino’ by the pride of Leith, Scotland and Britain’s leading pop artist, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924 – 2005). These enormous bronze sculptures form an allegory of a pilgrimage: part of a foot, to represent walking; part of a hand for hospitality; and locusts, bringing to mind the bible story of a plague of locusts descending. Paolozzi’s family came from the Monte Cassino area of Italy, the location of an imposing monastery, and so he brought a little part of his homeplace (devastated during WW2) to his new homeplace, in Edinburgh. Set low to the ground, it’s said Paolozzi designed the sculptures this way to encourage children to climb aboard and play.
Taking a random turn one day, one that took me away from the crowds on Princes Street, I found myself cutting down onto St Cuthbert’s Church, nestled right below Edinburgh Castle. Ancient graves surround the church, where a gardener was blowing leaves while another was edging the lawn. I was one minute away from the throb of the Lothian Road, but here the city’s frenetic pulse had died. Here it is peaceful, and so beautiful gazing up at Castle Rock from a setting well below street level: a location to match any street art. I went inside. Empty of people, it was full of wonder. One of the wonders being the stained glass window of David going out to meet Goliath, rock cradled in a slingshot, as he walks across pebbles by the edge of a river, all in jewel colours. It is one of only five windows in the UK made by the by Tiffany Glass Company of New York City. A fortuitous find.
And here is my wish for whoever had a spare $450 million to buy themselves a painting this week: wherever you are, I hope you can wander the streets of your nearby town and city, mixing freely with others to enjoy public works of art. There is an abundance of joy to be found outside of a Christies’ auction room, just get walking!