William Gemmell collection

William Gemmell was a joiner and sculptor who spent his whole life in Eaglesham. He was born there on July 16th, 1814 and died in Pillar House on November 20th, 1891. William was the fifth of eight children, of whom only four survived to adulthood; his father, John, was a builder and died in 1822 when William was 7 years old. By 1838 the three older children had married and left the family home, William, however, continued to live there with his mother until her death in 1850 and thereafter until his own death.

He took up work as a joiner in Eaglesham and in his spare time taught himself sculpting as a hobby. He spent three years from 1842 to 1845 creating a group of life-size statuary representing the family circle described in Robert Burns' poem "The Cottar's Saturday Night". Widely exhibited in the west of Scotland, these fifteen statues received much critical acclaim in the local press; however, there is now no record of their fate or, indeed, of any other of William Gemmell's work, save the six statues that survive.

The last known reference to William Gemmell practising his art is in the form of an account rendered by James Murdoch of Ayr on 5th November, 1850 for the supply of a stone, 3 feet by 33 inches by 33 inches at a cost of £2 - 18s - 10 1/2p, including 2 shillings and 6 pence cartage and 2 shillings and 8 pence tolls. Shortly thereafter, when in his mid-forties, William married Agnes Stevens, after which there is no evidence of his having produced any more sculptures.

The following is an extract from a column by "a Renfrewshire man" in a Kilmarnock journal of September 1895, about a walk round Eaglesham, Ballygeich and Moorhouse in which the statues at Pillar House are described:

"About a hundred yards up the street from the church is the house of Mrs Wallace where we shall see something, the existence of which is unknown to many of the visitors to Eaglesham."

"This is a collection of statues the work of Mr William Gemmell, who was a joiner in the village and one of the most modest of men. Gemmell, who passed all his days in Eaglesham, died only three or four years ago, aged 75 and was laid to rest in the churchyard, which we have just quitted. His work shows him to have been a genius and it was only his extreme modesty that prevented him from becoming very widely known. There are only six statues here, the others having been disposed of. Mrs Wallace, who is the niece of the sculptor, acts as our guide, but regarding two of the statues she needs to tell us nothing. Who would not recognise old "Hawkie" in all the glory of his rags? He rests on his crutches; the forefinger of his right hand touching the palm of his left and his face wears his cunning, never-to-be-forgotten expression. "Hawkie" lived in the village for six weeks while the model was being taken. Opposite this is a fine group of Burns and Highland Mary. A Herculean figure is the next most noteworthy piece and Mrs Wallace informs us that it represents William Hall, once a blacksmith in the village, in the act of putting the stone. The statue is said to be as true to the life as "Hawkie". The other statues are of a street urchin, a blind fiddler and a gypsy mourning over her dying child. The statuary, which was chiselled in Gemmell's younger days, was exhibited in Glasgow many years ago, but as we have indicated, exhibition was against his nature and he only cared to show his work to a few friends."

As the works of an amateur artist the sculptures are surprisingly well observed with some excellent attention to fine detail. In the close-ups below you can see the stitching of the socks and the buttons and buttonholes on Burns' clothing. Likewise, the neckerchiefs of Burns and the Fiddler, show a sophistication not present in other amateur artists' work.

The Characters

We know a little more about some of the characters that William Gemmell sculpted.  Please see the Related Pages below for more information.