Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub

Scotland, which he has described in a "Journal,” and in his correspondence. The literary capital did what it could for Burns; the first Edinburgh edition, according to Dr. Currie, realized nine hundred pounds, which after all expenses were paid left him in possession of a very handsome sum-about six hundred pounds. Long before he left town he must have felt wearied of its pleasures, and while ruminating on other years and other scenes, his heart, no doubt, would frequently yearn for Ayrshire's green solitudes, and the friends of his earlier youth. We know nothing of his later expectations in town, if indeed, he had any. In his heart of hearts he must have known, that the only thing possible for him was a return to the simplicity of rural life, and he made arrangements accordingly. He was right, for had he remained in town, where would have been his correspondence with Thomson, and the glorious legacy of song he bequeathed to his country? Amongst other things, we are indebted to Edinburgh for the principal portraits of Burns. In the first number of the Burns Chronicle there appears a most masterly article on the several portraits, by D. W. Stevenson, R.S.A., Sculptor, Edinburgh. It is written with great judgment and discrimination, and may well, on that subject, be considered as final; anything we can say will only emphasize the conclusions he has arrived at.

Before the introduction of Photography, portrait painters, while retaining the general character of a head, also worked up to a certain classical ideal, and were therefore, not so literally true to nature as such works are expected to be now, since they have the absolute certainty of photographs to contend with. We have never seen a life-size portrait by Nasmyth, and his portrait of Burns is of cabinet size. It is a very bright and pleasing portrait of our Poet: it was acknowledged, however, by his contemporaries to be over refined. Sir Walter Scott in speaking of it—and no doubt he would also be expressing the opinion of many who had seen and even spoken to Burns—says that it represents the Poet as if seen in perspective. Now in relation to the picture, this is a very significant word and denotes much, as for instance, a softening down of the features as if seen at some short distance, and to which its cabinet size would partly contribute. Beugo, when engraving it for the first Edinburgh edition, had sittings from the Poet, and endeavoured

[ocr errors]

to amend this by giving more mass to the features and toning down the “lines of beauty and grace,” which is evident to all who compare the engraving with the picture. The alterations were not likely to satisfy Nasmyth, but, bating these slight differences, the portrait is an admirable representation of the general appearance and character of Burns.

We were very much impressed on first seeing Skirving's fine head of Burns. It is somewhere stated that Skirving was very frequently in the Poet's company: he may have met him with Nasmyth, or in one or other of the various social clubs then abounding in Edinburgh. Sympathetic souls ever know where to find each other both at labour and refreshment, and Skirving, a keen observer of character, would have many opportunities of studying the Bard in his ever varying moods. It is not recorded that he ever formally sat to him, but the Artist has, notwithstanding, succeeded in giving us a very fine head. This work is in crayons on greyish toned paper, and in producing it the artist would proceed somewhat in the following way. Carefully and in exact proportion he would, from Nasmyth’s portrait, extend the features to the size of life, then alter or amend the lines according to the conception he had formed of the poet's head. Necessarily, of course, the position of the head is exactly the same as Nasmyth's, and we are enabled to trace the difference between the one and the other. Skirving gives quite another phase of the poet's character; the countenance is overshadowed by a not unpleasing sadness, not unlikely conjured up by memories of the past, or fears for the future—the mood of his fine song,

“ The gloomy night is gathering fast.” The only fault of this head, if it be one, is that the eyes seem too small, for we know the poet's eyes were large and striking, and in his deeply emotional moments, or when his electric blood was stirred, they blazed and coruscated like twin stars. The frontal ridge, (or what phrenologists call the perceptive faculties), is here more developed than in Nasmyth. We have frequently observed this as a strong feature in the portraits of distinguished men, notably so, for instance, in those of Professor Wilson and Thomas Carlyle. The latter's brow beetled above his keen blue eyes like a cliff above the sea; in Burns, this feature is by no means so marked, still, Skirving has given development to it. This characteristic, a firmer

F

mouth, the hair thicker and less wavy, a squarer jaw, and a more compactly built head, form its more prominent characteristics. It is well and gracefully drawn, and finished with much elegance and delicacy of touch. This much prized work is now in the possession of Sir Theodore Martin.

The portrait by Peter Taylor, at present in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh, is a work of some interest, inasmuch as Burns gave sittings for it. the work of a young man of much promise, but evidently inexperienced. It wants the electric flash of Nasmyth, all that expresses the soul in the countenance, and looks not exactly the man whose conversation in the hey-day of triumphant youth carried the ladies of Edinburgh off their feet. It undoubtedly resembles the poet, but cannot be regarded as at all satisfactory. As for the testimony of Sir Walter Scott, Mrs. Maclehose, the Ettrick Shepherd, and others, it does not count for much. The picture was so long laid aside that it eventually came upon them with all the force of novelty, and we are naturally strongly impressed with the unexpected; but this work must be judged from its inherent merits and in relation to the other portraits, at least to Nasmyth's and Skirving's. We can scarcely accept of the opinions of those who, in matters of art, hardly understand the relation of one line to another, and the parties concerned, could only, thirty-three years after the poet's death, talk and write of it, not in detail, but as it impressed them generally. Mr. Stevenson has put the matter in a sentence, when he says that as a portrait of Burns it is more interesting than valuable.

Some months ago, the ivory miniature, painted by Reid at Dumfries, in 1795, was added to the collection of National Portraits in Queen Street, Edinburgh.* This is undoubtedly the portrait alluded to by Burns (Jany, 29th, 1796) in a letter to Mrs.

a Riddell: it is a profile showing the left side of the face. Seven years had elapsed from the time of his sitting to Nasmyth, and the vicissitudes and trials of life have left their impress upon his brow : though still young his features are harder, the eye more sunk but still brilliant, and the lips thinner and more compressed. An additional feature is the small black whisker which comes down to the lobe of the ear, as was the fashion of the time, the

:

* A bequest from the Watson collection.

hair, too, is less bulky and with a feeling of grey in it. With regard to the dress, the coat is blue and high-collared, with the regular lapel of the period; the vest light and cross-striped as in the other portraits. Underneath, on paper faded to a dim yellow, is written in the Poet's well known hand, “R. Burns, Excise-Officer.” This small picture is in very good preservation, and its inherent merits prove it to be genuine.

The Miers silhouette we have always regarded as excellent, and it accentuates the portraits of Nasmyth, Skirving, and Reid.

Nasmyth's first portrait was presented by himself to Mrs. Burns, and was bequeathed to the Scottish Nation by the last surviving son, Colonel William Nicol Burns, and is now in the National Gallery, Edinburgh. Of this picture, Nasmyth made two replicas, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The other he presented to a favourite pupil on her marriage, and is now at Auchendrane, near Ayr. This latter work is said to have been retouched by Sir Henry Raeburn.

There is also Nasmyth's Cabinet whole length-representing him as he appeared on the streets of Edinburgh, in buckskins and top boots, and the soft felt hat he usually wore—in the National Gallery, Edinburgh.

Of the many engravings, that by Walker and Cousins, published in 1830, is by far the finest : it is even more animated and brilliant than the picture itself, and Nasmyth was delighted with it. This engraving is the size of the portrait. On the same scale, there is also an etching of Skirving's fine head.

It is much to be regretted that Raeburn did not paint Burns. Had he done so, it would have been the portrait of the century. There is no record of their ever even having met. Raeburn, after a sojourn of three years in Italy, returned to Edinburgh late in 1787, and Burns left it in the spring of 1788, and they seem never to have been brought together. A Raeburn portrait could not possibly have gone amissing ; both the poet and painter would have afterwards spoken of it. Professor Wilson (Christopher North) one of Burns's most enthusiastic admirers, was, in his young days, a frequent and welcome guest at Raeburn's table, and nothing whatever seems to have transpired about a portrait by Sir Henry. We may therefore dismiss the matter as inadmissible.

It is not to be expected now that any new and original portrait of Burns will turn up; we know them all, and they are in safe keeping. We have four of them, apart from the silhouette, for three of which he gave sittings; and although at first he had an aversion to being painted, he is in reality better represented than the great majority of poets. Skirving's head is the most poetic of them all, and may come to be regarded as the typical portrait of Burns.

ALEX. S. MACKAY.

« PredošláPokračovať »