Mary Syme Boyd

Posted by in General Collections, Uncategorized

Hello readers!

As our time working with the Collections Department is drawing to a close, we’re trying to round up all the wonderful things we’ve been doing over the last three months (wow three months already!) and bring them to you.

Hopefully you’re already up to speed with our time cataloguing the William Notman Collection which has taken up a large portion of our time.  The past two weeks we’ve also been working closely with our colleagues in Digital Archives (blog post to follow).  Today I want to take you back to our Collections beginning, and tell you about the little-known Edinburgh based 20th century sculptor, Mary Syme Boyd.

There appears to be a fairly recent uptick in interest about Mary Syme Boyd, noted in her inclusion in the Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965’, and from a post on the forum.  Hopefully this will be able to answer some questions, but of course remember that if you would like to find out more, our Mary Syme Boyd collection is now fully catalogued and available here on our Canmore database, and many of the items can be made available for anyone to see in our search room here at John Sinclair House, Edinburgh.


Here is what we now know about Mary Syme Boyd.

Mary Syme Boyd was a Scottish sculptor and artist born in Edinburgh, 15 August 1910.  Her mother was Clara Lepper, from County Antrim, and her father was Francis Darby Boyd, Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

From 1929 – 1933 she studied at Edinburgh College of Art, where we can tell she developed a fascination with animals, spending time making life studies of the animals kept in the college’s small menagerie.  Whilst studying she was awarded a travel scholarship to Paris from 1931-32 and worked under the tutelage of the acclaimed animalier sculptor Edouard Navellier.  She also used this time to develop her bronze casting techniques.  This fascination with the animal kingdom would continue throughout her professional career and remained her primary subject matter for her work.

In 1934 she received another scholarship to travel to Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France and at the end of that year she settled in 14 Belford Mews, Edinburgh, – which she inherited from her uncle, Edward Boyd – which became her home and studio until her death on 30 October 1997.

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Some of the many stamps from the many postcards of Boyd’s travels around Europe


14 Belford Mews, previous residence of Mary Syme Boyd

It would appear that she was always working, but sadly not a lot of her work is widely known or available.  Boyd made many ecclesiastical works such as a font in memory of her close friend Dr. Dorothea Walpole (the first female doctor to be appointed to the Edinburgh student health service and daughter of Bishop Walpole of Edinburgh), now situated in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and stone carvings such as the Tombstone for her friend Tom Ranken in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.  She exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Glasgow Institute.  Boyd’s most acclaimed sculptures, Cat (bronze) 1933-34 and Kestrel (wood-sabique) c 1936, were bequeathed by the artist to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1984 and 1997.

Tom Ranken Tombstone

Tom Ranken Tombstone

Dorothea Walpole font

Dorothea Walpole font

Boyd had strong links with the Church of Scotland, the archive indicates that she was a member of The Grail Club, 1 Erskine Place, Edinburgh – a women’s religious movement founded in the Netherlands in 1921 – but personal letters provide evidence of her resignation from St. Giles Cathedral in 1962.

Mary Syme Boyd never married nor had children, and is now buried in her family plot next to her sister, Lesbia Laurence Meron Boyd, in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh (she carved her own name into the grave stone before her passing, leaving a space for her date of death)

Through our time cataloguing this – sometimes personal – archive, we felt like we began to know Mary Syme Boyd, she seemed to be a woman of strong character and fierce independance, who lead a quietly successful and interesting life, who had a small group of close friends whom she kept in touch with over several decades of letter writing.  From what we were able to decipher, her two great loves in life were animals (especially her two dogs) and driving her car through the Highland scenery.