by Douglas Kynoch
The recent controversy concerning the addition of a name to the Rhynie war memorial throws the spotlight once more on the fine sculpture of the greatcoated soldier, which has long been such a familiar landmark in this North-east village.
The man who carved the figure was Robert Warrack Morrison, known to colleagues as “Bob” and to the Aberdeen granite industry in his day as “the king of the carvers”. It was only in the trade that he was known at all, for, unlike the professional sculptor whose name was usually recorded, the monumental mason received no credit for his work, no public recognition whatsoever. Yet Morrison was reputedly a genius.
Born in 1890, the son of a tailor, he worked for Morren & Co. of Holland Street in Aberdeen. Like numerous other North-east stone-cutters, he worked as a young man in the granite-yards of the United States, going out to Barre, Vermont before the First World War. In the States, he joined his brother John, also a stone-cutter; but both brothers returned to Britain on the outbreak of war in 1914, John enlisting in the Royal Field Artillery, while Bob, who appears to have been turned down for active service on medical grounds, worked instead in a munitions factory in Glasgow. Aged 24, he married his fiancee, Annie, that same year.
John having been killed in action, Bob returned to the States alone after the war, meaning to send for his wife and children. Before he could do that, however, he himself was sent for. Local communities wanted to commemorate their war dead and Morrison’s skills were needed at home. The war memorial period was just beginning. Morrison’s old boss, David Morren senior, had recalled a granite wreath his young cutter had effortlessly turned out in a lunch-hour, confirming his belief that he had a craftsman of rare talent on his staff.
Not only was Morrison’s attention to detail meticulous but he was an extraordinarily fast worker. It was said he took tremendous risks. Dispensing, for instance, with the normal procedure of squaring off a block (a week per face, four weeks per block) he would draw the square on both ends of the stone and knew instinctively the depth to cut to without the use of needles. He would carve the figure of a soldier in six weeks, as opposed to the usual six or nine months, the result being invariably impressive. In the friendly competition among the craftsmen, Bob Morrison was acknowledged to be by far and away the fastest carver and indeed, has been called ‘the king of the carvers’.
As inducement to return to the Morren yard, he had been offered six pounds a week (at a time when the ordinary mason was earning only one or two pounds); the position of joint foreman and a junior partnership. Also on offer was a flat the company bought in Calsayseat Road, which he would pay off from his earnings.
The Rhynie memorial was his first, being unveiled on May 30, 1920, just over six weeks after his return from America. This commission it was which, many years later, led a Northumberland sculptor, Fred Watson, to describe him as a genius. Working at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden in the summer of 1991, Watson assessed the work of the local granite-carvers, pointing out the “complicated and astonishing trickery” which Bob Morrison resorted to and the “virtuoso carving” to be seen on the Rhynie figure, remarkable, he felt, from a man who had probably no formal training in freehand sculpture and had to work with basic tools.
It appears that almost all the Morren memorials may be credited to him, one exception being Udny’s, which was carved by Frank Coutts. Other examples of Morrison’s work in the North-east include the obelisk at Clatt and the Celtic crosses at Lumsden and at Towie. For Henderson & Co., he executed the soldier figure at New Elgin, a Seaforth Highlander in full marching order, standing with arms reversed. The serviceman who is believed to have acted as model was CSM George Browse, holder of the Military Cross. The kilted soldier at Tarland was a commission Morrison undertook for Stewart & Co.
As Morrison’s reputation grew in the trade, commissions came in from other parts of the country including the North of England and Wales. Several figures went south and crosses went to the Carlisle area. The latter would have been of a traditional Celtic design featuring intertwined serpents.
The suggestion of there being a replica of the Rhynie figure at Blaydon in Tyne and Wear led me down there some years ago in search of other specimens of Morrison’s work.
To my untrained eye, the figure, set in a churchyard and unveiled in April 1923 (three years after Rhynie), appeared to be identical; but with the eye of the sculptor, Fred Watson considered the figure to be more freely carved and more sculpturally. For contemporary taste, he believes it to be an even better figure than the Rhynie original, done with greater confidence and assurance.
A survey of north-east England war memorials had brought to light what looked in a photograph remarkably like a Morrison Celtic cross at High Spen, also in Tyne and Wear; but when I visited it with Fred Watson, he was of the opinion that, though the stone was of Aberdeen granite and the design one of the Morren company’s, the carving was not of high enough quality to claim it as Morrison’s work.
The memorial period ended effectively in 1926, with the loss of exports to America and with ever increasing imports of finished memorials from the continent. Thereafter, memorials changed completely, being more economical in the use of granite and less ornate in design. While there was still some demand for carving until 1939, the year of the general strike had marked the beginning of the end of this kind of work.
From 1927 onwards, Morren under Morrison management, devoted 50 percent of their effort to the building of prefabricated blocks, a soul-destroying job for the craftsmen, undertaken, to keep the yard going. Slab-work or facing had become more prevalent too.
To the regret Bob Morrison must have felt at this curtailment of his creativity was added, in 1930, a crushing blow from which he never recovered; the death at the age of 40 of his wife, Annie, the mother of his seven children. The stone he carved for her grave and that of the youngest child who quickly followed her there may be reckoned his finest work. Bearing the inscription In memory of a devoted mother, it stands in Trinity Cemetery, Aberdeen.
David Morren Junior saw a drastic change in Morrison at this time, from the sociable man he knew, who played the piano for his father in musical evenings, he became very much more reserved. Indeed, even his own children found him remote. Robert Morrison died in 1945 at the age of 55, being survived today by two of his family: the eldest, my mother, Nan Kynoch, in Aberdeen and the youngest, John, in Canada.Tweet
This is an article from the August 2004 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.