Phyllis Bone zoological sculptures
A ll around the outside of the Ashworth Laboratories are small but beautifully car ved animal sculptures. They were commissioned for the new zoology department, which in the 1920s was based at Old College and fast running out of space now that normal life was resuming post-war. James Ashworth, Professor of Natural History and specialist in the nerve fibres of polychaete worms, managed to persuade both the Carnegie Trust and J.D. Rockefeller to help fund the building of this state-of-the-art facility. The resulting designs by Sir Robert Lorimer and John F. Matthews, based on Ashworth’s sketches, were perfectly practical, spacious, evenly lit, but a little … dull. Enter Phyllis Bone, a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art who had been chosen by Lorimer to carve the animal sculptures for the Scottish National War Memorial. Bone had studied animalier under Édouard Navellier in Paris. Her work was both scientific in its detail and strikingly modern in style. Bone modelled the animals in clay and worked with the Holyrood Pottery to have them cast in an artificial stone (a bit like Coade stone: see p. 242). Her creatures represent different zoogeographical regions: the reindeer, golden eagle and polar bear are from the Palaearctic region. A beaver and a bison come from the Nearctic. An aardvark, a chimpanzee and a lion signify the Ethiopian (now Afrotropical) region. The Oriental region, aka the Indomalaya ecozone, enlists a rhinoceros, a tiger and an elephant, with ropes entwining its great feet. From Australia we have a kangaroo, from South America a nine-banded armadillo, and from New Zealand a pair of sphenodon lizards. Invertebrates have a group of their own: a dung beetle, a crab and a swirling octopus. On the main staircase inside the building are more of Bone’s sculptures – tiny bronze owls, cats and monkeys perch on top of the finials of the metal balustrade. There is also a copy of Hugo Rheinhold’s famous Darwin’s monkey sculpture: a chimpanzee sitting atop a pile of books and contemplating a skull, probably wondering why he’s been called a monkey, not an ape. In 1944 Bone went on to become the first woman elected to the Royal Scottish Academy. Asked why it was always animals she sculpted, she replied: “All these creatures that fly from us shyly or threaten us fiercely interest me. I am enthralled by their shapes, their rhythmic movements, which, separately and combined, are so decorative and sculptural.”

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