Museum Musings

Welcome to Museum Musings, our new blog about all things Elgin Museum! If you’re interested in writing a short piece about a favourite object, display, exhibition or visit to Elgin Museum, please contact us.

Our first blog post is by Volunteer and Moray Society Board Member Mary Shand, about an old favourite who we’re sure you’ll all remember from your visits to the museum: Napoleon the Rocking Horse.

Napoleon the Rocking Horse

By Mary Shand

view of Napoleon the Rocking Horse with museum behind  

In the main gallery of Elgin Museum sits Napoleon, a large, beautiful, bench-style rocking horse. Dappled grey with long-hair mane and tail, he has a brown leather saddle on his back with stirrups, and reins to hold on to. He came to the museum in 1991 after a long and interesting career in education.

He was bought in the 1920s for the Low-Mustard family children. Their father had come to Elgin after World War 1, to join the solicitors’ firm of Grigor and Young. When the children outgrew their nursery playthings, the horse was passed on to the orphanage which was part of Anderson’s Institute. It remained there until the orphanage closed.

The rocking horse was then given to the Rose Nursery, named after Helen Rose, the founder. She started the school in 1920 under the Elgin Nursing Association and it was maintained by public subscription until 1946 when it was taken over by the Education Authority. The nursery was affectionately nicknamed “The Cocoa School”. It was here that the children called the horse “Napoleon”.

Full view of Napoleon the Rocking Horse, showing rocker mechanism

Toy horses appeared in numerous forms in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, “Hobby Horses”, a wooden horse head on a stick, were popular. By the 16th century these had developed into the “barrel” horse. This was a log with 4 wooden legs and a horse head on the end. Later, rocking horses, with the familiar, deeply curved rocking base, appeared.

By the 19th century, the form of carved, painted wooden horse on bow rockers had developed and the cottage industry had become a factory production. In the late 1800s, an alternative rocking mechanism was developed by Philip Marqua of Cincinnati, USA and patented in London as the “safety stand”. This is the type of rocking bench that Napoleon uses.

Close up of the face of Napoleon the Rocking Horse

Our next post is by Volunteer and Moray Society Board Member Janet Trythall, on the subject of the Museum’s architecture. Have you ever wondered why it looks so different to the other public buildings of Elgin? Read on…

Elgin Museum and Italianate architecture

By Janet Trythall

Describing the architecture of Elgin Museum, invariably I would trot out the phrase ‘and built in the Italianate-style’. In time of Coronavirus, I asked myself if I actually knew what that meant, and began some simple research into what constitutes “Italianate” and why the style was selected for the Museum.

Here is an image of the frontage of Elgin Museum, built in 1842 to the design of local architect, Thomas Mackenzie, and opened in January 1843.

Sketch of Elgin Museum pre-side hall

Who was making the design choice?

‘The Museum is the built embodiment of Elgin’s capital of the north aspirations, founded as it was by the Elgin and Morayshire Literary and Scientific Association. The 26 gentlemen who founded the Association doubtless regarded it as the key activity which lifted Elgin above the run of provincial towns. Its architecture fits: cosmopolitan-Italianate in style, with the didactic overtones appropriate to a learned society.’

(Charles McKean, The District of Moray: an illustrated architectural guide RIAS 1987)

What was the architectural scene in Elgin at this time?

Architecture of the Georgian age (i.e. the 123 years preceding the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837) included Greek and Gothic designs, but these were as nothing to the self-confident variety of new buildings of the Victorian age in town and countryside alike. Building initiatives of the preceding period had come mainly from the landed aristocracy but now were most vigorously pursued by the merchants and manufacturers. Furthermore, a spirit of self-reliance often involved the employment of local architects, as for Elgin Museum. (from Ronald G. Cant, The Historic Architecture of Moray from a talk given in Forres 1987)

Who was Thomas Mackenzie?

He was the son of a Perthshire architect and born in 1814, making him only 25 when his design for the Museum was accepted. He had moved in 1835 to Aberdeen, to the office of Archibald Simpson (designer of St Giles Kirk, Elgin and Anderson’s Institution). Simpson had toured in Italy, as reflected in some of his late work. Mackenzie then came to Elgin in 1839, as principal assistant to William Robertson, Elgin’s “first architect”, whose design for the Museum had been accepted in 1838 but then shelved. Robertson died suddenly in 1841, and Mackenzie set up on his own. Soon after, his plan for the Museum was adopted by the Society. Unfortunately, he died in 1854, of brain fever, apparently brought on by an accident. He left a wide range of distinguished buildings in Moray, developing accomplished work in various styles including the baronial and classical. One of his sons, A. Marshall Mackenzie, was the architect chosen to design later additions to Elgin Museum.

Why did Mackenzie choose ‘the Italianate style’?

His reasoning is outlined in a report dated 20th October 1841 in the Museum archives, and in early Museum Minutes:

‘One is that it best reconciles the difficulties of sum and site, another, and not the least, that all our public buildings are designed in the Grecian style, and if we were to erect another partaking of the same characters, Strangers and Conniseurs (sic), might be inclined to say we had “too much of a good thing” ‘.

What are usually described as Italianate features and which can we see in Elgin Museum?

The style was derived from medieval Italian villas and farmhouses. The Picturesque movement, which showed a preference for asymmetry, variety, and natural landscaping, was in full swing by the mid-19th century, and helped to grow the popularity of the Italianate style. Irregular floorplans were preferred over earlier plans that championed more rigid and proportional classical ideals. The early 19th century was also the time when pattern books became popular facilitating the sharing and demonstration of building plans.

Typical Italianate features are:

  • Overhanging eaves with substantial brackets.
  • Shallow roof pitch, sometimes with a subsidiary flat roofed wing.
  • Tall square tower with shallow pyramidal roof – sometimes the tower is also a belvedere or campanile.
  • Tall, narrow windows, often with a crown that is typically in the shape of an inverted ‘U’, or if rectangular, topped with ornamented pediments (that is, a gable, usually of triangular shape, placed above the horizontal structure of the lintel).
  • Lunette clerestory windows (half-round windows).

Many of these features are seen in Mackenzie’s 1844 substantial alterations to and encasement in the Italian style of St John’s Episcopal Church, Forres.

A Mohammedan Niche from Gaur or Gauda, Bengal, India. This is the structure in the image of the Museum shown above, visible against the adjacent wall of No. 3 High Street. It was donated to the Museum by J. W. Grant, Wester Elchies in 1852 and sold to the then Royal Museum of Scotland in 1955. Grant worked for the East India Company and donated several carvings of Hindu gods also now with National Museums Scotland.

Mohammedan Niche from Gaur or Gauda, Bengal, India

Further Reading:

Beaton, Elizabeth The designing and building of Elgin Museum, 1837 – 1843 Moray Field Club Papers 97, Moray Field Club Bulletin No 18, 1990
Cant, Ronald G. The Historic Architecture of Moray from a talk given in Forres 1987
Dictionary of Scottish Architects, entry for Thomas Mackenzie
Elgin Museum (A listing description, 1971)
McKean, Charles The District of Moray: an illustrated architectural guide RIAS 1987
St John’s Episcopal Church, Forres (A listing description, 1971)
Strutt and Parker Guides: The Italianate House



Museums volunteers Jenny Cook and Mary Shand have been working on a new display for 2020 about our beautiful miniature Elgin Marbles. As we are currently closed, they’ve decided to bring the display to you online. Read on to find out more about the history of these tiny artworks…

Marbles in Miniature – the John Henning sculptures

By Jenny Cook and Mary Shand

Scene form the Elgin Marbles miniature

In November 2003, Elgin Museum received a telephone call from a local woman who wanted to return something to the Museum which she had found in her attic.

Underneath an old issue of the Scottish Daily Express, dated 11th December 1936, was a superb set of miniatures of the “Elgin Marbles” from the Parthenon frieze. The associated paperwork confirmed the fact that the miniatures were originally a gift to Elgin Museum from Louisa, Countess of Seafield, in November 1886.

How, why or when these miniatures disappeared from the museum is not known, nevertheless some 134 years after they were gifted, they are now again available for display.

In 1799, British Diplomatist and art collector, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed British Ambassador in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which then included most of Greece.

Concerned about damage to important artworks in temples in Greece, Lord Elgin obtained full permission from the Turkish authorities to remove 15 of the original 92 marble metopes from the Parthenon frieze to transport to London. A series of shipments took many sculptures to England between 1802-1812.

Scene form the Elgin Marbles miniature showing livestock

John Henning, a Scottish sculptor from Paisley, was one of the first artists to gain access to the “Elgin Marbles”. He was so struck by the beauty of the sculptures that he asked to draw and make models of them.

Henning first sculpted miniature replicas in ivory but this proved unsatisfactory. Using earlier drawings to help him work out the order of the procession depicted, Henning carved miniature sunken impressions in slate, from which raised casts were made in white plaster and sold in boxed sets.

As we understand it, there are possibly only four sets of these original Henning casts in existence. It is a set of these 2” x 6” (5.08 x 15.24 cm) casts, originally owned by Louisa, Countess Seafield, that are on display in the Museum.

Also exhibited are two of John Henning’s original detailed pencil drawings of horses from the “Elgin Marbles”. They were donated, in 2014, by Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine, KT, CD, JP, DL.