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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Thomas Sommers, His Majesty's Glazier for Scotland


Thomas Sommers—the friend and biographer of Fergusson the poet— was originally from Lanarkshire. He came to Edinburgh early in life; so early iudeed, that he may be said to have been brought up in the city almost from infancy. He first became acquainted with Fergusson in 1756, who, then in the sixth year of his age, was a pupil of Mr. Philp, an English teacher in Niddry's Wynd, and who was on terms of intimacy with Mr. Sommers.

After finishing his apprenticeship as a glazier, Sommers proceeded to London. He was then about twenty years of age; and shortly after his arrival, as he used frequently to relate, he had the satisfaction of witnessing the coronation of George III. and his consort. In the capital he found good employment for several years; and he was enabled, on his return to Edinburgh, to commence business for himself, by opening a paint and glazier's shop in the Parliament Square.

Possessed of an education much superior to most of his contemporaries in the same station of life, Mr. Sommers soon acquired influence in the mangement of Mary's Chapel. "The United Incorporation of Mary's Chapel consists of the following crafts :—Wrights, masons, bowyers, glaziers, plumbers, upholsterers, painters, slaters, sievewrights, and coopers. This community has, in Niddry's Wynd, a modern hall, for holding their meetings. It is called Mary's Chapel, having been originally a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin."— Arnot's Hist, of Edin. Two deacons are annually chosen; one to represent the wrights, and another the masons. Some years ago, the election of Deacon for Mary's Chapel was a matter of very great importance. He was elected Deacon of the Masons in 1770-1, and again in 1776. In the latter year, remarkable in the annals of the Council for a keen contest for supremacy, he espoused the side of Sir Laurence Dundas, through whose interest he procured the appointment of "His Majesty's Glazier for Scotland."

A taste for literature had been early imbibed by Mr. Sommers; and, although thirteen years the senior of Fergusson, a reciprocity of sentiment produced a warm and steady intimacy betwixt them. With Woods, the Scottish Roscius, as he was termed, and several other friends of the Poet, he was well acquainted, and long after the latter had closed his short and ill-fated career, they continued to cherish his memory with the utmost affection. Possessing considerable facility in composition, with pretty extensive general knowledge, his acquirements were well calculated to elevate him above the level of the great mass of his fellow-citizens. In the Corporation, of which he was a member, and while one of the Town Council, Mr. Sommers stood pre-eminent—frequently astonishing his brethren, accustomed as they were to conversational debates, by the force of his arguments and the flights of his fancy. Interested in all public matters, he was ever zealous for the public good; and the humanity and kindness of his disposition invariably led him, as a member of Mary's Chapel, to advocate warmly the cause of the necessitous, who had claims on the Incorporation. As may be inferred, "His Majesty's Glazier" possessed a truly social temper. He was a member of the well known Cape Club, and for several years Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Freemasons, by whom he was regarded as an oracle.

He had long amused himself with literary composition, for the periodical works of the day, but it was not till 1794 that Mr. Sommers, impelled by the political excitement of the times, committed himself to the public, by the production of a pamphlet on the " Meaning and Extent of the Burgess Oath." This essay, inscribed to Provost Elder, is written in a clear and forcible style. The aim of the author was to exhibit to his fellow-burgesses the nature and duties by which they were bound, and the evil effects consequent on disunion, disaffection, and civil war. As the pamphlet is now scarce, we may quote the following passage as a specimen:—"How valuable, how important, then, the blessings of internal peace—national peace! Consequently, how criminal the conduct of those who would endeavour to deprive us of them! Peace, at her leisure, plans and leads out industry to execute all those noble improvements in agriculture, commerce, architecture, and science, which we behold on every side. Peace sets the mark of property on our possessions, and bids justice guarantee them to our enjoyment. Peace spreads over us the banner of the laws, while, free from outrage, and secure from injury, we taste the milk and honey of our honest toil."

His Life of Fergusson appeared in 1803. The author was prompted to this performance by a desire to vindicate the character of the Poet, and rescue his memory from the misrepresentations of "those biographers who knew him not, and who have taken their materials from others little better informed than themselves." The story of the Poet's accidental meeting with the Rev. John Brown, in the churchyard of Haddington, and the extraordinary effect resulting from the conversation, is strongly doubted by Mr. Sommers. "This rural excursion, and singular dialogue," says he, "with all its supposed direful effects, has even found its way into the first volume of the Supplement to the Encyclopcedia Britannica, and is held forth in that part of their biographical history as a sterling circumstance in the life of the unfortunate Robert Fergusson ! I know, however, that account to be ill-founded in most particulars, although the visit alluded to was in the year 1772. The day before Robert Fergusson set out upon it, I saw and conversed with him; and the evening on which he returned to town, was in his company; and not one word dropped from him of any such thing having happened, though he was then in every respect possessed of all his mental faculties.

With regard to the accusation preferred against the Poet, "that he was an utter stranger to temperance and sobriety, and that his dissipated manner of life had in a great measure eradicated all sense of delicacy and propriety," Mr. Sommers observes, that "those who were personally acquainted with him, will not subscribe to that opinion ; for even when in his more devoted hours at the shrine of Bacchus, he preserved a modesty and gentleness of manners, exhibited by few of his age, sprightly humour, and unpatronised situation."

Of the intimacy betwixt the Poet and his biographer, the following anecdote affords a characteristic instance. Mr. Sommers, alluding to his shop in the Parliament Square, states that he was frequently visited by the Poet, when passing to or from the Commissary Office:— "In one of those visits I happened to be absent; he found, however, ' my shopboy Robert Aikman (a great favourite of Fergusson), then engaged in copying from a collection of manuscript hymns one on the Creation, given to him by a friend of the author, in order to improve his hand in writing. Fergusson looked at the hymn, and supposing that I had given it to the boy, not merely to transcribe, but to learn its serious contents, took the pen out of his hand, and upon a small slip of paper wrote the following lines :—

'Tom Sommers is a gloomy man,
His mind is dark within;
O holy------! glaze his soul,
That light may enter in.'

He then desired the boy to give his compliments to me, delivered to him the slip of paper, and retired."

Another circumstance relative to the only portrait known to have been taken of the Poet, is too interesting to be omitted. Speaking of Runciman, the painter, Sommers says—"That artist was at this time painting, in his own house in the Pleasance, a picture on a half-length cloth, of the Prodigal Son, in which his fancy and pencil had introduced every necessary object and circumstance suggested by the sacred passage. At his own desire I called to see it. I was much pleased with the composition, colouring, and admirable effect of the piece, at least what was done of it; but expressed my surprise at observing a large space in the centre, exhibiting nothing but chalk outlines of a human figure. He informed me that he had reserved that space for the Prodigal, but could not find a young man whose personal form, and expressive features, were such as he could approve of, and commit to the canvas. Robert Fergusson's face and figure instantly occurred to me: not from an idea that Fergusson's real character was that of the Prodigal; by no means—but, on account of his sprightly humour, personal appearance, and striking features. I asked Mr. Runciman if he knew the Poet. He answered in the negative, but that he had often read and admired the poems. That evening at five, I appointed to meet with him and the Poet, in a tavern, Parliament Close. We did so; and I introduced him. The painter was much pleased, both with his figure and conversation. I intimated to Fergusson the nature of the business on which we met. He agreed to sit next forenoon. I accompanied him for that purpose; and in a few days the picture strikingly exhibited the bard in the character of a prodigal, sitting on a grassy bank, surrounded by swine, some of which were sleeping, and others feeding; his right leg over his left knee ; eyes uplifted; hands clasped; tattered clothes ; and, with expressive countenance, bemoaning his forlorn and miserable situation ! This picture, when finished, reflected high honour on the painter, being much admired. It was sent to the Royal Exhibition in London, where it was also highly esteemed, and there purchased by a gentleman of taste and fortune at a considerable price. I have often expressed a wish to see a print from it, but never had that pleasure ; as it exhibited a portrait of my favourite bard, which, for likeness, colouring, and expression, might have done honour to the taste and pencil of Sir Joshua Reynolds."

This painting is now lost or unattainable. In the Prodigal's . Return, however—another picture by Runciman—the likeness of the Poet, though in a different attitude, is said to have been strictly adhered to. From this picture an engraving was prefixed to an edition of Fergusson's poems, published in 1821, with Preface and Life of the Author, by James Gray, then of the High School, Edinburgh.

Although the Life of Fergusson is almost the only production for which Mr. Sommers is known, his time was much occupied by literary pursuits; and it is probable that the gratification of his taste in this way was inimical to the due prosecution of business. After giving up his shop in the Parliament Square, he resided for some years in the land known by the name of the "Clamshell Turnpike," and latterly in the Advocates' Close. From the following draught of a letter, in his own hand-writing (found among his papers), some idea may be formed of the circumstances in which he was then placed, and the cause to which he attributed his want of success in trade. The paper is addressed to the Hon. Henry Erskine, who, during the brief administration of "All the Talents," held the office of Lord Advocate of Scotland:—

"My Lord,—Although I approach your lordship with some diffidence, yet it is at the same time mixed with a degree of confidence, while I humbly call on you to listen to the following short detail of facts.

"In the year 1776, I was a member of the Council of Edinburgh —a period singularly marked for political bustle and contention, respecting the City's then worthy representative in Parliament, Sir Laurence Dundas. I was one of his friends, and suffered much by the combined interest of the Duke of Buccleuch and the House of Arniston. Sir Laurence, however, justly prevailed in the contest, but soon after died; previous to which he procured for me the appointment of His Majesty's Glazier for Scotland; but as Mr. Henry Dundas and his friends came into the political management of the city, my interest failed; and to this day, now thirty years, no pecuniary advantage whatever has arisen to me from that commission (which I still hold), not even so much as to the value of tlie official expenses in obtaining it! My worthy friend, Lord Dundas, is well acquainted with these circumstances, to whom I wrote, upon the late change of administration, soliciting his lordship's interest in a small Crown appointment, independent of the influence or control of the Town Council. I have not, however, been honoured with a return from his lordship, which may probably be owing to his attention having been engaged in business of higher importance.

"My Lord, I am now sixty-four years of age; notwithstanding of which, I have, from an attachment to my country, been a Field-Sergeant in the battalion (late Spearmen) of Edinburgh Volunteers, now commanded by my worthy friend, William Inglis, Esq., and in which corps, I hope I have, since it was first embodied at the instance of the trades, been a constant and active member. Although my age and state of health prevent me from being fit for active business as a glazier, yet, if your lordship's merited influence, in concert with that of my valuable friend, Lord Dundas, would procure for me a renewal of my commission, connecting with me in said commission an active and prospering young man, a freeman glazier of this city, it would prove the happy means of placing me in a situation truly comfortable in my advanced age, and tend not only to atone for past neglect, but soothe and render the closing scene of life tranquil and serene ! Your lordship favouring me with an answer, will be highly esteemed by

"My Lord,"
Your lordship's truly devoted and very humble Servant,

"T. S.

"Edinburgh, 21st Feb., 1S07.
"Right Hon. Henry Ekskine, M.P.,

"Lord Advocate of Scotland, London."

Nothing beneficial appears to have resulted from this memorial, if indeed it was ever presented. Mr. Sommers latterly obtained a situation connected with the Convention of Royal Burghs, for which he had a salary of .£40 a year. This small sum was his chief dependence. He was also Clerk to the Incorporation of Fleshers, for which he had a trifling allowance; and much of his time was occupied in drawing up petitions, and otherwise assisting those who sought the aid of his pen. Having no children, though twice married, his domestic establishment was limited; and to the last he maintained a degree of respectability in his appearance. He always dressed in black, and when his own hair failed, wore a neatly tied and powdered wig. His house in the Advocates' Close contained a small apartment, lighted from above, where, even in advanced age, he used to sit for days together, occupied in some literary project—a species of amusement, he has often been heard to declare, essential to his happiness. He contemplated several extensive works. The last of these was a History of the Improvements of Edinburgh. Proposals for this work—of which the following is a copy—were issued in 1816:—"Soon will be published, in one volume octavo, in boards, price 7s., dedicated to the Eight Hon. William Arbuthnot, Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council, a retrospect of the public buildings, and the other external improvements of the City of Edinburgh, from the 14th of September, 1753, to the 9th July, 1816, inclusive; being the result of sixty-three years personal observation : with occasional remarks not only on these improvements, but on the religious, moral, and political character of its inhabitants; and a view of their manners during that period. Concluding with a warm, seasonable, and affectionate address to the citizens at large, by Thomas Sommers, burgess and freeman of Edinburgh, and His Majesty's Glazier for Scotland."

A good many subscribers were procured for the "Retrospect;" the manuscript was nearly completed, and arrangements for printing it so far entered into, that the Print by Kay was engraved as a frontispiece to the book. The death of the author, however, prevented the publication. He died on the 16th of September, 1817, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, and the oldest deacon of the fourteen Incorporated Trades of Scotland.

The "Retrospect," probably, contained much curious matter. The manuscript remained in the hands of his widow, but on her death in 1832, his papers, unfortunately, were so much scattered and destroyed that almost no vestige of the work remains.

Mr. Sommers married, first, Joan Douglas, daughter of a glazier, who resided in Libberton's Wynd; and, secondly, Jean, or Jeanie Fraser, sister of the wife of Nathaniel Gow, the famous musician.


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