Robert Burns and art: local, national, international [2008]

Robert Burns and art: local, national, international.

Murdo Macdonald



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.


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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Furthermore, in the wake of Gavin Hamilton, he was an influential illustrator of Homer.

The 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.[5] 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.

To a 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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 culture.

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,[9] 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. [10]

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 taken seriously.

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.’[11] 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.






[1] 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.

[2] Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. For an account of likenesses of the poet, see B. Skinner & J. Mackay, Burns: Authentic Likenesses, Darvel, 1990.

[3] Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

[4] D. Irwin, John Flaxman: Sculptor, Illustrator, Designer, London, 1979, 185-6.

[5] J. Mordaunt Crook, The Greek Revival, London, 1972, 105.

[6] Cf late twentieth century light artist like James Turrell

[7] Boyle, N., 1992, Goethe; the Poet and the Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press; 286.

[8] Gavin Sprott, Robert Burns: Pride and Passion, Edinburgh, 1996, 176.

[9] Letter to Dr. Moore, 2 August, 1787. My thanks to Robert Alan Jamieson for drawing this to my attention.

[10] Burns (writing under the name of the legendary Gipsy Johnny Faa) to Charles Sharpe, 22 April, 1791.

[11] Ibid., 127-8.