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Discovery of hundreds of historic drawings sheds new light on Scotland’s maritime past

27 September 2013

A private donation of hundreds of old drawings of ships which visited Scotland in the inter-war years has been made to Historic Scotland.

Executed in ink, pencil and watercolour, they are the work of artist Hector French, who for decades kept a detailed pictorial record of the ships which came and went in the Port of Leith, once one of the most important ports in Europe.

An old suitcase containing around 15 sketchbooks filled with these pictures was handed in to Trinity House in Leith, where they can be viewed by the public this weekend as part of Doors Open Days.

Although Hector French is known to have lived near the Port of Leith and worked as a lithographer, little is known about his life and Historic Scotland is keen to hear from members of the public who might have further information about this accomplished and prolific local artist.

Mr French recorded the names of the merchant ships visiting the Port of Leith on his drawings as well as the countries they came from. Some of those ships were later sunk in WW2 convoys, a fact that he has returned to his drawings to record – in one case writing ‘torpedoed’ just two months after completing the sketch. Some drawings show individual ships while others depict scenes of the busy port.

Hugh Morrison, Collections Registrar at Historic Scotland said: “This is an incredibly exciting find. Not only are these drawings technically accomplished, but they provide a fascinating and unique record of the Port of Leith during an interesting period in its history.

“They offer us a detailed pictorial record of the ships which came and went between the wars and during WWII, when a photographic record would have been restricted. It is poignant that some of those ships were torpedoed not long after they were sketched in Leith by Hector French. He was clearly a very skilled artist, but since we have no other record of his work it appears that he simply sketched at the docks for his own interest.

“How fitting then, that his work has gone on display in Trinity House – just minutes from the docks – for the public to enjoy as part of Doors Open Days. We are keen to find out more about the artist and his work so hope that in displaying these sketches, not only will they get the recognition they deserve, but we may be able to find out more about the man behind them.”

Pauline McCloy of the Scottish Civic Trust, national coordinators of Doors Open Days said: “Hector French’s newly uncovered artwork of Leith Docks is an intriguing and exciting addition to the Doors Open Days programme.

“Whilst we nationally welcome lots of buildings and events to join our festival programme each year, little moments of happenstance like this bring the real meaning of Doors Open Days to life – the discovery of something new that may have been right under our noses all along.

“The discovery of a new part of history, of a new or unusual artefact, of a man sketching the changing world around him and saving them in a suitcase. It’s like revealing a long-lost treasure that can tell us all a little bit more about the history of Scotland and the talent and skill of its people.”

Hector French’s sketchbooks can be viewed at Trinity House in Edinburgh as part of Doors Open Days on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th September from 10am-4pm. Visit for details.

Notes for editors

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

  • Doors Open Days® is coordinated nationally by the Scottish Civic Trust. It runs throughout Scotland every September as part of European Heritage Days. Edinburgh Doors Open Days is organised by the Cockburn Association. For more information see

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  • 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland, inspiring our people and our visitors to celebrate Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty, landscapes and biodiversity as Scotland prepares to welcome the world in 2014 and beyond. Find out more about Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty at

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Alice Wyllie
Media & PR Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8603 or 07920 768 096