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Robert Burns Lives!
Archibald Skirving and his Drawing of Robert Burns by Robert Carnie

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

As I write this brief note of introduction, I am in Inverness, the Capitol of the Highlands. I am traveling with my wife Susan, son Scott, daughter-in-law, Denise, and grandchildren Ian and Stirling, ages 9 and 7 respectively. You will be hearing about this trip in the near future.

Sometime back I was honored to present a book review on Burns Illustrated by Robert Carnie and a chat article with his dear friend, Jim Osborne. Since then I have had the privilege of communicating with his son, Andrew, who has shared several speeches by his late father. It is a joy to bring to you one who loved, studied, and taught Burns for many years. I am deeply grateful to Andrew Carnie for sharing this speech with me and consenting for it to be a part of Robert Burns Lives!, and please know other speeches by Bob Carnie will grace these pages in the days ahead. (FRS: 6.25.09)

Archibald Skirving(1749-1819) and His Drawing of Robert Burns.
By Robert Carnie


        I can never forget, even when talking to a group of old friends as I am tonight, my training  in St. Andrews as a graduate student some 48 years ago. My teacher there told me often. 'Always start off by telling the people who are listening to you, why you decided on your topic and identify the sources of your information.' Well,  I  chose this topic tonight because one of my favourite portraits of Burns is that by  Archibald Skirving - a great artist and a very eccentric man. I used only three sources.  Firstly  the account of Skirving in Thomas Carlyle's Reminiscences, first published as recently as 1974 by an American scholar.  Secondly, I used a book  I know some of you  possess, the volume called Burnsiana published by  James Mackay in 1988. ( You will remember Mackay's Immortal Memory given at one of our own Burns Suppers.) Thirdly, I used a recent addition to my books (hot off the press!), Stephen Lloyd's  Raeburn's Rival Archibald Skirving 1749-1819, published by The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1999. As well as Lloyd's biographical account, it also contains his catalogue of the very first national exhibition of this artist's work, shown at the National Portrait  Galley  from January to April, 1999.

   Archibald  Skirving as one of the finest pastellists of the eighteenth century. He also worked in oil, and pencil, and was an excellent miniaturist. His work was very highly praised by Sir Walter Scott who called him 'an unrivalled artist as a painter in crayon'. Skirving was born on a farm(East Garleton) near Athelstaneford, a village and parish three miles north of the town of Haddington and about 15 miles from Edinburgh. (The rather unpronounceable name of  the village is supposed to celebrate the 8th century victory of Angus MacFergus, the king of the Picts, over Athelstan,the English commander of the Northumbrian king, Eadbert. A surprising number of eminent 18th century Scots lived in this  little parish, including Robert Blair, (1699-1746) minister and author of that  most  dreary of  18th century poems The Grave; his son, also called Robert(1741-1811) was Lord President of the Court of Session in Rabbie's lifetime, and that other minister/poet John Home(or Hume) was minister at Athelstaneford from from 1746 to 1759 and wrote there his famous romantic verse-tragedy Douglas, which was probably the most popular play of its time. That Rabbie knew John Home and his famous play is without question. Home was present at the famous evening at Adam Ferguson's house where Burns also met the young Walter Scott. (Show Hardie's fanciful painting). Burns also made reference to Douglas in a prologue he wrote for the actor William Woods' benefit night, April 1787, and the poet quotes from the play more than once in his letters to Mrs . Dunlop.

    But to return to my artist.  Archibald's parents were Adam Skirving and Jean Ainslie. Adam was the tenant farmer at East Garleton, just outside the village and he was also the author of two well known Jacobite ballads -'Hey Johnnie Cope' and 'Tranent Muir', both about  Bonnie Prince Charie's victory at the battle of Prestonpans.  One of my favourite  stories about Adam Skirving has been told many times. After the ballad was published, one of Cope's officers, a Lieutenant Smith, who was staying at the George Inn in Haddington, sent his second to the farm with a letter challenging Adam to a duel. When the second arrived, Adam Skirving was turning over the manure in his yard. After reading the letter Skirving said: "Ye may gang back to Lieutentant Smith, and say to him 'If he likes to come up-by here, I'll tak a look at him; if I've a mind to fecht him, I'll fecht him; and if no, I'll dae as he did, I'll rin awa!'.   Archibald had a brother and a sister, Robert and Grace. Robert Skirving had a very successful career  as a captain in the service of the East India Company. After his  artist brother's  death, Robert wrote the epitaph on him that can still be seen on the family tomb in the Athelstaneford graveyard.

   Archibald Skirving's first job was as a clerk in the the Custom's office in Edinburgh, where he began an adult life, a life famous for its frugal style. The art critic Hugh Cleghorn's book Ancient and Modern Art(1837) tells the story of Archibald being taken by his farmer father to Edinburgh and (I quote) '

(His father) "saw him installed in his office, and presenting him with half-a-crown to buy a penknife, intimated to him that he was never to look to his father for more - and kept his word."  Cleghorn goes on to say  that left to his own devices in this arbitrary fashion, Archibald  had to adopt  a very rigid economy to live within his limited means . This  frugality became habitual, and the artist still practised it when he was comparatively well off later in life.  Patrick Gibson ,writing in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1816, said of Skirving: "His works are not numerous, as his enthusiasm and genius are equally divided between painting, darning stockings, turning egg-cups, mending his old clothes and other useful offices".  As well as being one of the best known artists in Edinburgh at the time of his death, Skirving was equally well known, if not notorious, for his frugal and thrifty habits.

  When Skirving was still a customs officer, he drew & painted in his spare time, and probably studied at the Trustees Academy under the French artist Charles Pavillon, who was a master there before the Scottish painters Alexander Runciman and David Allan took  over.  In late 1777, no doubt fed up with working as a clerk in the Custom's office during the day, and painting miniatures by night, Skirving decided to try his luck in London where there was both a bigger market for works of art, and also intense competition from other artists, both Scottish and English. By the mid-1780's Skirving, who had exhibited at least once at the Royal Academy, had decided to return to the smaller, but less competitive,  Edinburgh market.  In 1786 he further decided to follow the lead of many earlier Scottish painters and continue both his studies and painting career in Italy where he remained for seven and a half years.  He was partly supported by the patronage of the Charteris family, and when Lord Elcho of that family visited Rome, Skirving did pastel portraits of father & son.  He also received commissions from other Scottish and English visitors to Rome, wealthy people on the Grand Tour who wanted to take back to their ancestral homes paintings of themselves and family. In 1794, after this first career in Italy,  Skirving decided to return to Scotland. Unfortunately his ship from Livorno in Italy to the United Kingdom was captured by the French near the Straits of Gibraltar.  Because of his drawing implements and portfolios, he was suspected of being a spy, and was imprisoned at Brest for nine months during the Reign of Terror, and narrowly missed being shot immediately.  His  general  health and his eyesight were both affected by his stay in the damp prison dungeons, but he was finally released in March 1795 and returned via Portsmouth to his native land. As Thomas Carlyle tells us: " His nerves were incurably exasperated; a condition which the contradictions of the world on his  return, and the shortcomings and obliquities of man had made him worse instead of better."  In other  words  Skirving had become a serious neurotic, and in a profession dependent on the goodwill  of customers for his  art, he managed to insult or upset rich clients who came to his studio. For example, he berated the Duke of Buccleuch, for being five minutes later for a sitting, and, not surprisingly, the Duke never came back. Similarly he lost another wealthy customer, Lady Charlotte Campbell, the daughter of the 6th Duke of Argyll, because he would not allow her to bring her husband and her pet dog,  who had disturbed him the first time, to later sittings.  He also lost other customers because of his passion for verisimilitude, insisting on as many as  50 or 60 sittings. He was also very often rude, as Henry Mackenzie tells us in his Anecdotes and Egotisms volume: "His portraits were facsimiles, even of the blemishes of the faces he painted; he never spared a freckle or a small pox  mark , and once, with his characteristic rudeness, told a lady who had a very dingy complexion he could not paint her, for he had not enough of yellow chalk for the purpose". It is not surprising that many potential customers chose to go to Henry Raeburn for their paintings.  Raeburn and Skirving Scotland's best portrait painters of their time, but there is no doubt that Raeburn was the much more sociable and pleasant man.

  For the last twenty or so years of his life, Skirving  lived like a hermit in his flat at the head of Leith Walk  and painted or drew in  chalk  first class portraits of the customers who could put up with him. He had come back to Scotland in August 1795 while Rabbie was  still  alive and his lively drawing was assumed to be from the life.   Skirving's unfinished chalk drawing of the head of Robert Burns has been much admired . (It is  the one Jim Christie showed on the screen last month.) It has often been reproduced, notably in Vol. I. of the Gresham Publishing Company's edition of Burns's Works 1909. It was then in the possession of Sir Theodore Martin. It is in red crayon on grey paper.  Walter Scott  knew it and called it 'the only good portrait of Burns, a judgement that should be respected as the young Walter had had  more than one opportunity to observe him. The drawing was apparently in Skirving's Edinburgh studio until 1819. It was then owned by a man called Rennie, before it came into the posssesion of Sir Theodore Martin. It is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Skirving is on record as writing to his brother, Robert, the sea captain, to the following effect in 1802: "I have repeatedly been offer'd 30 Guineas for a keelhead of Burns but it is not finished, and [is] still with me. It is taken from a picture (for I never saw him) in the hands of one I despise'. (Skirving MSS) The letter does not say which painting was Skirving's original.  Jim Mackay says of the drawing that it is "Clearly derived from Nasmyth, it nevertheless possesses a very special quality and is esthetically most pleasing'. The most recent expert on Skirving,  Stephen Lloyd, to whose researches on the artist this short paper  owes a great and freely acknowledged debt, also believes that it is based on the Nasmyth painting, and his final judgement of it I will also quote:  "Skirving's portrait - although very finely drawn - is inevitably a somewhat idealised  interpretation of the poet". I regret, along with Lloyd and other authorities that Skirving neither met Burns, nor had the opportunity to draw him from life." What a wonderful portrait that might have been!

RHC Dec. 14, 1999.

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