Burke and Hare Mural, Hotel du Vin, Edinburgh

This was quite an open brief – I was commissioned to come up with a mural for a function room in The Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh for it’s opening. There were a whole host of elements from Edinburgh’s history that were suggested to me, but I loved the gothic element of Burke and Hare, Edinburgh’s notorious body snatchers, so took this as the main theme.

The pub on the left of the mural is The White Hart, where Burke and Hare would ply their victims with alcohol before luring them away to be murdered. They would then sell the bodies to the university for medical research. Fresh bodies were always hard to come by then, so the fresher the bodies were the more they were paid.

Burke and Hare in the painting are transporting one of their dead victims in a wheel barrow. The dog pulling the blanket off is actually Grayfriar’s Bobby who’s solving the mystery. Grayfriar’s Bobby in real life was 30 years after the murders, but I’d decided to overlook this for the theatrical element. Two ladies have noticed, one has swooned and the other is about to scream.

I used a mixture of Edinburgh’s buildings to create more of a ‘feel’ for the place than a specific street could. I wanted the iconic castle in the background but you can’t actually see it from the White Hart so I just fabricated the whole scene, which lends it quite a surreal theatricality which I liked. Every shop sign that I put in the painting has a cryptic reference to Edinburgh’s literary and scientific achievements.

I studied many paintings and techniques of traditional night time painting to try and get the lighting correct here – this was no easy task in itself. I used a dark blue background for the artwork, partly to unify the colours and partly to force my painting style into ‘alla prima’ and give it a boldness. In an earlier design for the painting, I had the unveiled corpse, staring out at the viewer. It was often a tradition with multi-figured compositions to have a single person looking directly at the viewer. I thought it was a macabre twist here to have this role filled by a corpse. In the end, I opted for a more restrained design with only the arm exposed, but in hindsight I wished I gone for the full stare.