BURNET, JAMES, Landscape
Painter.—Among the lives of eminent men it often happens that some
individual obtains a place, more on account of the excellence he
indicated than that which he realized; and whom a premature death
extinguishes, just when a well-spent youth of high promise has commenced
those labours by which the hopes he excited would in all likelihood be
amply fulfilled. Such examples we do not willingly let die, and this
must form our chief apology for the introduction of a short memoir of
James Burnet in the present work. He was of a family that came
originally from Aberdeen, and was born at Musselburgh, in the year 1788.
His father, George Burnet, of whom he was the fourth son, held the
important office of general surveyor of excise in Scotland: his mother,
Anne Cruikshank, was sister to the distinguished anatomist whose name is
so honourably associated with the professional studies of John Hunter.
In the education of most minds that attain to distinguished excellence,
it will generally be found that the maternal care predominates in
helping to form the young ideas, and give them their proper direction;
and such was the good fortune of James Burnet, whose mother, during the
evening, was wont to aid him in the preparation of the school-room
lessons for the following day. He soon evinced his natural bias towards
art, not only by juvenile attempts in drawing, but his frequent visits
to the studio of Scott, the landscape engraver, with whom his brother
John, afterwards so eminent as an engraver, was a pupil. On account of
these indications, James was placed under the care of Liddel, to learn
the mystery of wood-carving, at that time in high request, and
productive of great profit to those who excelled in it; and as skill in
drawing was necessary for acquiring proficiency in this kind of
delineation, he was also sent to the Trustees’ Academy, where he studied
under Graham, the early preceptor of the most distinguished of our
modern Scottish artists. It was not wonderful that, thus circumstanced,
James Burnet’s taste for carving in wood was soon superseded by the
higher departments of art. He quickly perceived the superiority of a
well-finished delineation upon canvas or paper over the stiff cherubs,
scrolls, and wreaths that were laboriously chiselled upon side-boards
and bed-posts, and chose his vocation accordingly: he would be an
artist. With this view, he transmitted to his brother John, now employed
as an engraver in London, several specimens of his drawings, expressing
also his earnest desire to commence life as a painter in the great
metropolis; and without waiting for an answer, he impatiently followed
his application, in person, and arrived in London in 1810. A letter of
acquiescence from his brother, which his hurry had anticipated, was
already on the way to Edinburgh, and therefore his arrival in London,
although so sudden and unexpected, was far from being unwelcome.
It required no long stay
in the British capital to convince the young aspirant that he had much
yet to learn before he could become an artist. But he also found that
London could offer such lessons as Edinburgh had been unable to furnish.
This conviction first struck him on seeing Wilkie’s "Blind Fiddler," of
which his brother John was executing the well-known and justly-admired
engraving. James was arrested and rivetted by the painting, so unlike
all he had hitherto admired and copied: it was, he perceived, in some
such spirit as this that he must select from nature, and imitate it, if
he would succeed in his daring enterprise. This conviction was further
confirmed by studying the productions of the eminent Dutch masters in
the British Gallery, where he found that originality of conception was
not only intimately blended with the truthfulness of nature, but made
subservient to its authority. He must therefore study nature herself
where she was best to be found—among the fields, and beneath the clear
skies, where the beauty of form and the richness of colour presented
their infinite variety to the artist’s choice, and taught him the best
modes of arranging them upon the canvas. Forth he accordingly went, with
nothing but his note-book and pencil; and among the fields, in the
neighbourhood of London, he marked with an observant eye the various
objects that most struck his fancy, and made short sketches of these, to
be afterwards amplified into paintings. It was remarked, also, in this
collection of hasty pencillings that instead of seeking to aggrandize
the works of nature, he faithfully copied them as he found them. "He has
introduced," says a judicious critic, speaking of one of his paintings,
"everything that could in any way characterize the scene. The rainbow in
the sky, the glittering of the rain upon the leaves; the dripping
poultry under the hedge, the reflections of the cattle on the road, and
the girl with the gown over her shoulders, all tend with equal force to
illustrate his subject." Not content, also, with the mere work of
sketching in the fields, he was accustomed to note down in his book such
observations in connection with the sketch as might be available for the
future picture, or those remarks in reference to light and shade that
were applicable to painting in general. The result of this training was
soon perceptible in the increasing excellence of his successive
productions, of which Allan Cunningham, his biographer, well
remarks:—"His trees are finely grouped; his cows are all beautiful; they
have the sense to know where the sweetest grass grows; his milk-maids
have an air of natural elegance about them, and his cow-boys are not
Of the paintings of James
Burnet, some of which are in the possession of his relatives, and others
among the costly picture galleries of our nobility, the following is a
1. Cattle going out in the
2. Cattle returning home in a shower.
3. Key of the byre.
4. Crossing the brook.
5. Cow-boys and cattle.
6. Breaking the ice.
8. Crossing the bridge.
9. Inside of a cow-house.
10. Going to market.
11. Cattle by a pool in summer.
12. Boy with cows.
While Burnet was thus
pursuing a course of self-education that drew him onward step by step in
improvement, and promised to conduct him to a very high rank among
pastoral and landscape painters, a disease had latterly attended him in
his wanderings, that too often selects the young and the sensitive for
its victims. This was consumption, a disease which his lonely habits and
sedentary employment in the open air were only too apt to aggravate;
and, although a change of scene and atmosphere was tried by his removal
to Lee in Kent, it was soon evident that his days were numbered. Even
then, however, when scarcely able to walk, he was to be found lingering
among the beautiful scenery of Lee and Lewisham, with his pencil and
note-book in hand, and to the last he talked with his friends about
painting, and the landscapes that he still hoped to delineate. He died
on the 27th of July, 1816. His dying wish was to be buried in the
village church of Lee, in whose picturesque church-yard he had so often
wandered and mused during the last days of his illness; but as sepulture
in that privileged place could not be granted to a stranger, his remains
were interred in the churchyard of Lewisham. At his death he had only
reached his twenty-eighth year.