For years now
I have been moving from article to article on Robert Burns Lives!,
hounding old friends for their writings, stating the case for an unknown
professor to be a part of our pages, asking for referrals, and generally
making a nuisance of myself as I have sought to fill our web site with pages
by scholars as well as some everyday folks who love Burns. I have also been
lucky to find an occasional young person to contribute. All of this is done
because of my love for Burns and my desire to share the best about Burns by
those who teach at universities and those who read about him at home.
Hopefully they are lucky enough to attend a Burns club where freedom of
thought about him is permitted and where they can understand there are more
ways of looking at Burns than “the way it has always been”. There is no
room in our local Burns Club for those I will always refer to as the “Burns
Police” since such people generally feel it is their way or the highway. My
advice to them -- don’t let the door hit you where the Lord split you.
to attend the Burns Club of Atlanta which is first and foremost a literary
club. Sure, you will hear the Burns Immortal Memory in January and maybe
three or four more talks on him during the year, but the founding fathers of
our club realized there was much to learn from other authors as well. Yet we
say a Burns prayer before each meal, read Burns’ poetry at every meeting and
close with Auld Lang Syne, circled up and holding hands. You are
even allowed to sing off key from time to time. We celebrate Burns no matter
what subject the presenter is speaking on. This is the tradition that has
been followed on the first Wednesday night of each month since 1896. In a
recent publication of the Atlanta Preservation Center’s Phoenix Flies,
it was noted that “The Club is likely Atlanta’s oldest cultural and literary
various contacts with RBL, I’ve been able to invite many people to speak at
our Burns cottage, ranging from scholars to a young lady who just last
winter did an internship at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and who had
never read much on Burns until her study abroad program at Furman University
put her in Scotland. These pages are a celebration of Robert Burns by people
from all walks of life.
We have one of
the world’s top Burns’ scholars sharing an excellent paper with us today on
a subject that has not been covered in any of the 172 chapters posted on RBL.
According to his bio, Murdo is Professor of History of Scottish Art at the
University of Dundee. He is a former editor of Edinburgh Review. He
is author of Scottish Art in Thames and Hudson’s World of Art series.
His recent research has explored the art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, the
cultural milieu of Patrick Geddes, and Robert Burns and visual thinking. He
is an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy and a Fellow of the
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
A good friend of his
recently described Professor Macdonald as “a key figure in understanding the
manifold aspects of the revival in Scottish culture. Instrumental in
reviving the Edinburgh Review, he was personally involved in bringing the
worlds of Scottish literature and philosophical/intellectual history
together through his introduction of James Kelman to George Davie. He is the
foremost authority on the history of Scottish Art and the Scottish
Another colleague described
him as “ALWAYS intellectually exhilarating” and went on to say that recently
'Glasgow Life' - City of
Glasgow cultural umbrella (that overseas galleries, the Mitchell etc) –
“assembled a team of academics to help GL compile a new research strategy
document that would cross various disciplines: literature, history,
architecture, art, politics, science etc. etc.” Murdo Macdonald was asked to
serve on that team. When I learned his subject was on Burns and Art, I
immediately consulted the thousand or so books on Burns in my library
thinking there was a book with a similar name. I could only find one that
mentioned art and it was Snyder’s Robert Burns, His Personality, His
Reputation and His Art printed in 1936. With all due respect to Snyder,
Murdo’s paper is a vast improvement. So get yourself a good cup of hot tea,
coffee, a wee dram, or a cold beer and find a quiet spot to enjoy one of the
best papers you will ever read.”
I look forward
to the possibility of one day having Professor Macdonald speak to our Burns
Club in Atlanta and hope it will be real soon. When I asked him to share
some of his work, he replied, “For your interest here's a link to a website
exploring some of my recent Highland art research,”
This paper was originally presented at the AHRC Global Burns Network Meeting
at the University of Glasgow, 30 October 2008. It was revised in May 2013.)
Burns and art:
local, national, international
By Murdo Macdonald
Professor Murdo Macdonald
What I would like to do today
is to consider images that we take for granted with respect to Burns but
perhaps do not think about as much as we could. In doing so I want to think
about Burns as a focus of local, national and international consideration.
Often an image will show Robert Burns working at the plough, but equally his
memory can be evoked as the inhabitant of a classical monument. What could
be more local than ploughing a field and what could be more international
than a monument in classical style? It is the appropriateness of this
transit from local and international that makes Burns the truly national
figure that he is. Both these perspectives – what one might call the folk
perspective on the one hand and the classical perspective on the other - are
fundamental to any consideration of imagery associated with Burns, indeed
they converge when the idea of Burns as a ‘ploughman-poet’ is seen not
merely as a convenient stereotype, but as a statement both of a prototypical
working class intellectualism and at the same time as a rural, Virgilian
reference. My argument here is that these notions are not imposed on Burns,
but are appropriate to him as a man of his time.
There is, however, so much
popular imagery relating to Burns, appearing on calendars, coasters, whisky
and beer bottle labels, postcards, shortbread tins, tea-towels, fridge
magnets, lapel badges, etc., that the fact that there is a significant fine
art tradition underpinning such imagery can often be obscured.
However, I should stress that I do not see that plethora of imagery as a
problem, indeed I think what is interesting to note is that the popular
imagery is based in fine art and is the better for it.
A great deal of this popular
imagery stems from Alexander Nasmyth’s 1787 portrait of the poet.
Yet as soon as we begin to refer back to Nasmyth’s portait we find ourselves
again encountering the local and the international. What could be more
immediate and local for our idea of Burns than imagining him having a drink
with his artist friend, Nasmyth, at their local Edinburgh drinking club and
then wandering off to Roslin Glen to cure their hangovers the next morning?
What could be more international for Burns than the fact that his artist
friend had recently traveled to both Rome and Florence to study, and brought
his experience of European painting to bear on his portrait of his friend?
Rome was, of course, the city
that transmitted the classical canon to all parts of Europe in the second
half of the eighteenth century and Scottish artists and architects played a
significant role in that city’s cultural life. Not just thinking of
Alexander Nasmyth but Robert Adam and of Allan Ramsay, and, perhaps most of
all, of Gavin Hamilton, who in the 1750s and 1760s more or less invented the
type of neoclassical style that the French painter Jacques Louis David was
to make famous a generation later. This can be seen, for example, in
Hamilton’s mural scale responses to Homer, such as Achilles Lamenting the
Death of Patroclus, now in the National Gallery of Scotland. This classical
emphasis was a key part of the Scottish/international culture of which Burns
was part, and it is therefore appropriate that the first major Burns statue,
now in the atrium of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, is by one of
the great neoclassical sculptors of the day, the sculptor John Flaxman. That
was begun in 1824 and finished after Flaxman’s death in 1826 by his
brother-in-law Thomas Denman.
One may be surprised at the choice of an English sculptor for this most
Scottish of commissions, however the Scottish tradition of public sculpture
was still undeveloped in the early nineteenth century. Both Thomas Campbell
and Lawrence Macdonald were still relatively young men and John Steell was
hardly out of his teens. In Flaxman, the organisers commissioned one of the
best neoclassical sculptors available. It should also be pointed out that
Flaxman was an enthusiastic reader of Burns.
Furthermore, in the wake of Gavin Hamilton, he was an influential
illustrator of Homer.
architectural aspect of monuments to Burns is also relevant here for
Flaxman’s statue was originally placed within the Burns monument which can
be found on the slopes of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, part of Thomas
Hamilton’s Royal High School grouping. The monument was purpose-built to
enclose the sculpture in 1830. It takes the form of a circular, walled,
neoclassical temple, a synthesis of influences of ancient Greece and ancient
Rome, on the one hand referring to the choragic monument of Lysicrates in
Athens, on the other to the Temple of the Sibyls at Tivoli.
But one should also note that about ten years before, Hamilton had designed
what remains the definitive Burns monument, the one designed for the poet’s
birthplace at Alloway, again using the inspiration of the Lysicrates
monument in Athens. The Alloway monument has a lightness of touch which
contrasts with the Edinburgh monument’s more solid identity as part of the
developing, stone-built, New Town. But both express Hamilton’s quality as a
pioneer of Greek Revival architecture.
degree both monuments can also be seen as tributes to Alexander Nasmyth’s St
Bernard’s Well built on the banks of the Water of Leith in 1789, two years
after Nasmyth had painted Burns’ portrait. We must not forget Nasmyth’s
considerable ability as an engineer and architect, as well as a painter.
Here he is bringing an Arcadian dimension to Edinburgh, not just in his use
of classical form in his architecture, but in the way he sites it, as though
it were part of a painting by a 17th painter working in Rome such as Claude
Lorrain. While consideration of this circular pillared temple provides wider
context for the Edinburgh Burns monument, that monument’s cylindrical
solidity is also an echo of Robert Adam’s nearby mausoleum for David Hume,
and it thus, through architecture, reminds us of the wider, Enlightenment,
context of Burns’ thinking.
The elegant geometrical
nature of Adam’s structure, built in 1778, two years after Hume’s death,
helps to illustrate the Scottish Enlightenment visual thinking tradition of
which both Robert Burns and Alexander Nasmyth were part. Looking up from
inside that monument one gets an even stronger impression of its radically
Euclidean nature. It opens to the sky in a perfect circle unencumbered by
cornicing or any other architectural device.
This experience of light and colour mediated by pure form brings sharply to
mind Hume’s views on abstraction as expressed in his Treatise of Human
Nature. I am referring in particular to the thought experiment in which Hume
compares a cube of white marble, a cube of black marble, a sphere of white
marble and a sphere of black marble, in order to make the point that one
cannot experience shape without colour, and nor can one experience colour
without shape. Indeed both Hume and Adam here prefigure key concerns of
twentieth century minimal art.
Hume’s intriguing thought
image of stone cubes and spheres is echoed in a design by his younger
contemporary, Goethe. In his garden in Weimar Goethe erected a cube and
sphere structure, entitled The Altar of Good Fortune, in 1777. For Goethe
the sphere represented mobility while the cube represented stability.
Goethe’s intention in this symbolic sculpture was thus conceptually quite
different from Hume’s thought experiment, but the formal analogy could not
be clearer. In passing I should note Goethe’s wonderful assessment of Burns
when he spoke of Burns’ songs living among us and greeting us from the mouth
of the people.
There is a further formal
resonance to which I wish to draw attention here for it brings us back to
the Edinburgh of Nasmyth and Burns. This analogy is between Hume’s use of
geometry and sculptures in Ian Hamilton’s Finlay’s garden at Dunsyre in
Lanarkshire. I don’t think Ian Hamilton Finlay is deliberately responding to
Hume just as I don’t think Goethe was, but the point here is that the wider
resonance of Finlay’s work with Enlightenment thought is very precisely
stated in his naming of his garden ‘Little Sparta’, for this name is, of
course, both a complement and a challenge to the notion of Edinburgh as the
neoclassical Athens of the North. Symbolic of the point that the
neoclassical Athens of the North is as much a matter of philosophy as
architecture is Alexander Nasmyth’s placing of Robert Adam’s cylinder in
honour of Hume at the very heart of his painting of Edinburgh from Calton
Hill, made around 1820, not far from the place where Burns’ monument would
be built. The point to be made with respect to the wider intellectual
culture of Scotland of the time of Burns and Nasmyth is that visual thinking
inspired by classical philosophy was a notable and generative part of that
It is important to emphasise
that Burns himself was well aware of that geometrical tradition. For
example, with his usual sense of humour, in 1787 he referred, in a letter to
Dr Moore, to a love affair distracting him from his study of geometry,
and to a later correspondent he wrote:
Whenever I feel inclined to
rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet
on the one side, and my fiddle-case on the other, and placing my hat between
my legs, I can, by means of its brim, or rather brims, go through the whole
doctrine of the conic sections.
Typical of the poet, these
lines are both a parody of the cultural generalism of the Scottish
Enlightenment and a strong expression of his personal commitment to it.
Burns’ invocation of geometry as a perfectly normal pastime for the
wandering poet is typically witty, but at the same time it draws attention
to a genuine everyday awareness of visual thinking in Scotland at this time.
We should not be surprised at this, after all it is the basis of the
Scottish engineering tradition, a tradition that – not least through Nasmyth
- Burns was also close to. One can cite as an example of this Alexander
Nasmyth’s sketch of Patrick Miller’s pioneering iron-hulled steamboat, which
sailed on Dalswinton Loch in Dumfriesshire in 1788. Not only had Nasmyth
drawn up the plans for it, but it is said that both he and Burns were
passengers on its first voyage (although that’s been disputed). In this
engineering context we should also remember that much of our information
about the Burns-Nasmyth relationship comes from Alexander’s son, James
Nasmyth, whose invention of the steam-hammer transformed the scale on which
industrial production was possible. James also goes out of his way to point
out that his father was a very early proponent of the screw propeller. Such
comments, far from being footnotes when we come to consider Burns, give us a
real understanding of the integrated intellectual culture of which both
Burns and Nasmyth were part. However local this culture may have been to the
two men in Edinburgh, it was at the same time the international intellectual
culture that drove the Enlightenment throughout Europe and indeed America.
And, to reiterate, a key part of that culture was that visual studies were
For example, with respect to
the Scottish defence of geometry, George Davie comments that Sir William
Hamilton, professor of Logic at the University of Edinburgh argued that, in
the context of Scottish intellectual tradition, ‘a predilection for Greek
geometry was both reasonable and natural.’
One might suggest, following this, that a predilection for Greek revival
monuments in honour of Burns was thus, for Scots of the early nineteenth
century, equally ‘reasonable and natural’. And again, one might hold that
the choice of the international style of neoclassicism for Burns’ first
statue was equally ‘reasonable and natural’ - the important point being that
the adoption of this style was appropriate to Burns himself rather than in
any way a cultural imposition upon him.
Flaxman’s work helped to
secure the sculptural use of the Nasmyth portrait which was expressed
through – among many others – works by Patric Park, John Henning, John
Steell, W. G. Stevenson, Amelia Hill, George Lawson, D. W. Stevenson,
Frederick Pomeroy, Pittendrigh Macgillivray, and, more recently, Alexander
Stoddart. This opens up another international perspective as one begins to
note the global distribution of versions of Burns statues by the same
artists. For example Sir John Steell’s statue was first commissioned for
Central Park in New York, but versions also occur in Dundee, on Victoria
Embankment in London and in Dunedin in New Zealand.
But returning to Scotland and
Rome: In the early 1770s, another Scottish artist in Rome, Alexander
Runciman, took Gavin Hamilton’s restrained neoclassicical approach to Homer
and developed it into an experimental romanticism in response to the latest
Scottish phenomenon to hit Rome, James Macpherson’s Ossian. It is
appropriate that for a conjectural portrait of Ossian, attributed to
Runciman, the engraver was none other that Burns’ good friend John Beugo,
who had engraved the Nasmyth portrait for the Edinburgh edition. Burns was,
of course, well aware of Ossian even before he met Alexander Nasmyth, indeed
he makes explicit use of Macpherson in two of the key poems in the
Kilmarnock edition, ‘The Twa Dogs’ and ‘The Vision’ but Nasmyth’s knowledge
of Runciman’s work makes it very likely that Ossian would have been a topic
of informed conversation between the two friends. In this context it is
appropriate that both Burns’ Scotticised classical muse, Coila, and the
Northern Homer, Ossian, are the presences that inform that the title page of
George Gilfillan’s National Burns, published in 1879. Burns adopts such Bard
imagery and it makes him firmly part of the Celtic-classical complementary
which has characterized so much Scottish thinking.
From the point of view of
visual art, key examples can be found in D O Hill’s series, The Land of
Burns. Hill’s extraordinary contribution here is the fantasy title page of
the whole work, which not only includes visual gems like a fairy in Highland
dress attacking a critic in the form of a toad, but also directly refers to
Burns’ bardic imagery, in this case referring to the ghost of liberty from
his song, As I stood by yon roofless tower, and complements it with
classicism as represented by the Alloway monument. This title page image is
from 1840, and much like the title page for The National Burns from almost
40 years later, it identifies Burns with a classical vision complemented not
just by a folk vision, but by a Celtic vision. This Celtic-classical
complementarity has been a defining characteristic of Scottish culture since
the Enlightenment and before. It can be seen also in Hill’s Scene on the
Lugar. D.O. Hill was a disciple of Alexander Nasmyth and his landscapes in
The Land of Burns often reflect the lessons of landscape composition
transmitted to him by Nasmyth. And by way of conclusion it is to Nasmyth and
his contribution to imagery relating to Burns that I want to return.
With reference to Burns we
normally think of Nasmyth only as a portraitist, but some of the earliest
published landscape illustrations of Burns are also by Nasmyth. These are
deeply informed by his learning of landscape compositional techniques in
Rome and at the same time they pioneer a vision of the Highlands which
predates Sir Walter Scott’s Highland writing - let alone the imagery that
responds to it - by a number of years and we should therefore remember that
it is Burns’ Highland tour, not Scott’s Lady of the Lake, that is the real
beginning of fully achieved Highland landscape imagery.
An example is Nasmyth of the
Falls of Foyers, beautifully engraved by John Greig in 1805 to illustrate
Burns’ Highland wanderings. Here we have an engraving of a painting by an
internationally minded Scottish artist, which he painted to illustrate the
national travels of his friend, a like-minded Scottish poet. The image
itself shows a locality of Scotland that would soon become part of the
international perception of Scotland. So whether we look to classical
monuments or Highland landscapes we find in these visual responses to Burns
an intertwining of local, national and international currents of thinking,
appropriate to the poet.
I conclude by noting that I
could have written an entirely different paper to the same title but devoted
it to the work of artists of the present day, like George Wyllie, who
memorably transformed the export of shortbread into the export of ideas, or
Graham Fagen, who has made subtle explorations of Burns’ Jamaica connection.
The fact that interest in Burns remains strong among leading Scottish
artists of today, is a further indication of his continuing significance.
 Useful starting points for the analysis of popular visual
responses to Burns are J. Mackay, Burnsiana, Ayr, 1988, and P. J.
Westwood, The Deltiology of Robert Burns, Dumfries, 1994.
 Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. For an
account of likenesses of the poet, see B. Skinner & J. Mackay,
Burns: Authentic Likenesses, Darvel, 1990.
National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
 D. Irwin, John Flaxman: Sculptor, Illustrator, Designer,
London, 1979, 185-6.
 J. Mordaunt
Crook, The Greek Revival, London, 1972, 105.
 Cf late
twentieth century light artist like James Turrell
 Boyle, N.,
1992, Goethe; the Poet and the Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press;
 Gavin Sprott,
Robert Burns: Pride and Passion, Edinburgh, 1996, 176.
 Letter to Dr.
Moore, 2 August, 1787. My thanks to Robert Alan Jamieson for drawing
this to my attention.
 Burns (writing
under the name of the legendary Gipsy Johnny Faa) to Charles Sharpe,
22 April, 1791.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.