Wisdom is the Principal Thing

Last month I was asked to take some photos of the McEwan Hall which is currently undergoing a major redevelopment to bring it into the 21st century. Having previously photographed Rowand Anderson’s architectural drawings for the building, I have long been looking for excuse to see inside and was delighted to have this chance. This huge auditorium has a seating capacity of 2000 and was presented to the University in 1897 by the Brewer and Politician William McEwan.  We have a lovely illustration in the collections of a holly festooned McEwan giving the Graduation Hall to the University on a platter, with Old College’s golden boy in the background.

19 miles of scaffolding had been erected in the auditorium to enable the Scottish Wall Painting conservators to clean the stunning murals by William M. Palin, which he had based on the wall paintings at St Pauls. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss: it will be a long time until such close access to the paintings allows us to document these wall paintings again. Additionally, photography of the building undergoing such extensive work adds to the archive we already hold for the Hall.

However, being a building site, before any photography could start I had to do a site induction and get kitted up with hard hat, high-Viz and hobnails (or at least the modern equivalent!), then it was the long climb up the scaffolding steps into the ceiling space.



The tight spaces, proximity of scaffolding and mixed low level lighting all ensured a challenging couple of days, but being up so close to the paintings allowed a level of detail that would not be apparent from the ground level, and gave an insight into how the paintings were put together. Designed to be viewed from far below, at this level the foreshortening was also apparent. For this job I used our Nikon D800 camera on a tripod, and used a mixture of available light or a Metz flash. Often shine off the paintings caused a problem, particularly with all the gold work, however carefully choosing the angle of view and using a circular polariser minimised this.

On the top level of the dome the ‘muses’ of the various strands of education reside- Medicine, Mathematics, Poetry etc, while on the next level down is the biblical inscription, ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour’.

Below that comes the names of the University’s illustrious Alumni, names so familiar to me from the collections here at the CRC, James Hutton, Thomas Carlyle and Joseph Black.

The Interserve team running the redevelopment have been fantastic in the support they have given us with this project and we hope to return within the next month when the top layers of scaffolding have been removed- this should allow some wider angle shots without the complications of scaffolding, photographs of the large mural on the front wall and maybe even a visit out on the roof to get some shots over the whole building site area.

Susan Pettigrew, Photographer


  1. Deborah said:

    What a wonderful opportunity to see these restored. Thank you for the photos.

    November 7, 2016
    • diu said:

      Thank you Deborah!

      November 7, 2016
  2. Dong said:

    So lucky to see your excellent photos and story. Much efforts to introduce the McEwan Hall in this world-class university. The graduation ceremony is often held in this great hall. Good luck to the graduation students! Of course, to one of them, Junwei Lu!

    November 24, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *