50 years ago, the publication of A. J. Youngson’s The Making of Classical Edinburgh brought to light the neglect of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town and began a process of conservation which eventually led to the establishment of the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee, now known as Edinburgh World Heritage. Classical Edinburgh, the new exhibition at City Art Centre allows for a moment of reflection on how much (and more often, how little) Edinburgh and its New Town have changed over the past 50 years.

The exhibition shows the work of photographer Edwin Smith, whose photographs of Edinburgh first featured in Youngson’s book, alongside that of Colin McLean, who replicates and reinterprets Smith’s work, both in black and white and colour photography, with excellent results.

There is a good sense of cohesion between the work of Smith and McLean and it is easy to match up the photographs which show the same view from each period and fascinating to see the differences in architecture, traffic flow and city layout. At times, it would be of benefit and interest to the viewer to see McLean’s work situated directly alongside Smith’s but the overall layout of the exhibition is clear and the photographs are given the space to be appreciated without ever feeling overcrowded or sparse.  

McLean’s work finds a middle ground of distinct separation from Edwin’s photographs without ever straying too far from the clear aim of appreciating and reflecting on the latter’s work. The featuring of people in the images was particularly notable in this regard; both photographers captured the scenes as they found them and very few of the photographs came across as false or staged in this way. Consequently, there is a lovely natural truth to both the old and contemporary photographs, and we get the sense that the people seen in the photographs are as much a part of the city as the architecture surrounding them.

More than anything, this exhibition is a celebration of Edinburgh, in all its grandeur, intricacy and beauty. McLean noted in particular the difference in traffic levels and pollution between the two periods, which can be seen especially well in a photograph taken from Salisbury Crags in the 1950s in which Edinburgh Castle can barely be seen in the distance due to air pollution. Despite being undeniably haunting in beauty, this reminds us of the responsibility of care we have for this wonderfully unique and historic city we have the pleasure to call home.

Classical Edinburgh runs at the City Art Centre until 8 March 2020.