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He’s still regarded as Scotland’s national poet more than two centuries after his death, and his birthday is celebrated every January at Burns Nights across the world – filled with haggis, pipes, poetry, songs and a generous helping of whisky.

But when a plan was hatched in 1812 to build a colossal national monument to Robert Burns and install it in the centre of Edinburgh, the money to fund it was not raised in the Bard’s home country, but by Burns enthusiasts in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

c.1826–c.1828, statue in white marble by John Flaxman (1755–1826) and Thomas Denman

The resulting work became the iconic sculptural portrait of the poet, but it was moved from place to place around the Scottish capital during the nineteenth century because of concerns that are still significant for public art today – conservation, pollution, financing and public accessibility.

In Bombay, it was John Forbes Mitchell of Thainstan who first came up with the idea to raise funds for a national monument to celebrate the Bard, who had died at Dumfries in 1796. Forbes Mitchell was a Scotsman, Burns enthusiast and merchant of the East India Company who was living and working in India, and in 1812 began a subscription scheme to fund a huge bronze statue in Edinburgh.

John (1755–1830), 4th Duke of Atholl, KT

John (1755–1830), 4th Duke of Atholl, KT 1901

Thomas Richard Hinks Beaumont (1857–1940)

By 1819 more than £1,500 had been donated, and Forbes Mitchell travelled to London to discuss his plan with a group of aristocratic Burns enthusiasts. The meeting was supported by some highly influential figures – held in the Freemasons’ Tavern, it was chaired by the Duke of Atholl under the patronage of the Prince Regent, and those present formed a monument committee.

John Flaxman (1755–1826)

John Flaxman (1755–1826)

Henry Howard (1769–1847)

The plan was approved, but it was decided that a life-size marble sculpture would be a more suitable memorial, to be housed in one of the Scottish capital’s fine buildings – preferably the university library. In 1824 the committee commissioned John Flaxman, the most famous British sculptor of his day, and by then nearly 70 years old, to do the work for an agreed fee of £1,400, though he had offered to do it for nothing.

Robert Burns (1759–1796), Poet

Robert Burns (1759–1796), Poet 1787

Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840)

In order to create a good likeness, Flaxman was sent the oil portrait of Burns painted by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787, as well as an etching by John Beugo. Nasmyth had been a good friend of Burns, and the poet’s son had confirmed the painting looked a lot like him (it is now on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery). It shows the poet aged just 28, was painted from life, and has become the best-known and most widely produced image of Burns around the world.

Jean Armour (1765–1834), Mrs Robert Burns

Jean Armour (1765–1834), Mrs Robert Burns 1822

John Alexander Gilfillan (1793–1864)

The painting was procured from Burns’ wife, Jean Armour, by George Thomson, Burns’ friend and publisher, who sat on the monument committee. Thomson later wrote:

'For enabling him [Flaxman] to transmit the features of the poet to posterity as faithfully as possible, I obtained from Mrs Burns, and sent him the portrait in oil painted from life very successfully by Mr Alexander Nasmyth, Edinburgh, being the only portrait for which he ever sat to any reputable artist, as far as I know: and, along with it, I sent the small engraving done from it by Beugo for the first Edinburgh edition of his [Burns’] poems; for Mr Beugo told me that he was frequently visited by Burns while at work on the plate, and thus had opportunities of examining his manly expressive countenance when lighted up by conversation: and though I recommended the painting to Mr Flaxman as his safest guide to likeness, I did not think it right to withhold the engraving, nor to omit telling him that Gilbert Burns, the poet’s brother, had expressed to me his marked approbation both of the painting and engraving.'

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

c.1826–c.1828, statue in white marble by John Flaxman (1755–1826) and Thomas Denman

Flaxman worked on the sculpture depicting the poet in a standing pose, reciting his poem To a Mountain Daisy. He reported on his progress to George Thomson in 1826: 'The marble is very good tho’ not absolutely spotless. I am very glad it is to be placed in the Library of the University not only because the situation is noble but because it is a just estimation of the Poet’s powers.'

In December that year, before the work could be completed, Flaxman died, and along with many of the artist’s other unfinished works, the sculpture was completed by his brother-in-law and pupil, Thomas Denham.

By the time the work was finished, the funds raised had increased to more than £3,000, so with the remainder of the money the committee decided to construct a monumental 'temple' to house the sculpture, and instructed the Greek-revivalist architect Thomas Hamilton, who had designed the Burns Monument in Alloway.

The foundation stone was laid in 1831, but right from the start there were concerns about its location at the bottom of Calton Hill – it was close to foundries, breweries and gas works, and by 1836 George Thomson and notable Edinburgh figures including Lord Henry Cockburn, the judge and architectural conservationist, were suggesting it should be moved – partly because somebody had to be paid to look after it, so the public had to pay to see it.

Thomson wrote of the sculpture’s blackened appearance, and expressed his concern that Flaxman’s work would be 'despoiled of its brightness and purity'. He argued that it should be moved, and that the best place for it would be the place he had first suggested – 'some splendid hall' – preferably the University Library. 'In the small Temple where he stands at present, he seems imprisoned like an Eagle in a Cage, where the Spectator is obliged, to stand too near to him, not being able to get further off than ten or eleven feet, and thus cannot view him advantageously: whereas in the Library, the Spectator could occupy any position contiguous or distant that suits his vision.'

At that time Scotland had no national gallery or portrait gallery – which would have been the obvious choice otherwise. 'The Committee therefore are fully convinced that they shall better discharge their duty and much more effectually provide for the permanent safety of this fine work of art, by having it placed in one of the most respectable public institutions in Edinburgh, since we have as yet no Pantheon or National Edifice for the reception of the Statues and Busts of eminent Scotsmen.'

Thomson’s plea was backed up by Lord Cockburn, who said that to 'shut up Burns in a Box and let people get a glimpse of him by opening a locked door and then closing it on him is an outrage on all taste, and on all the uses of such Monuments. Get therefore some worthy large place where he can be seen freely, safely and with dignity. You will say where is it? To which I answer, in the College Library, in the new Library begun for the faculty of Advocates, in the splendid and finished hall of the Writers to the Signet, in the circular dome of the Register House, or any other large and dignified hall.'

In 1846, the statue was handed into the care of Edinburgh Corporation, now City of Edinburgh Council, who own it to this day, and it was moved to the university library (now the Playfair Library). This was, however, not without controversy either, as the Ploughman Poet had had no university education, so to place him in a place of learning was an affront to some, who made no secret of their outrage in correspondence to The Scotsman newspaper. Lord Cockburn, however, pointed out the absurdity of the argument, writing that 'on this ground the Busts of Homer, Shakespeare, and other great lights of the world, which we find in most of our Colleges, and public Libraries, would be shut out.'

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

c.1826–c.1828, statue in white marble by John Flaxman (1755–1826) and Thomas Denman

The statue stayed in the library until 1861, when it was moved to the recently opened National Gallery of Scotland, a location it was hoped was more accessible to the public. It stayed there until 1889, when the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street opened – the pantheon for the statues and busts of eminent Scotsmen (and women) that Scotland had been lacking. It has stood in the Great Hall ever since, is the site for an annual wreath-laying ceremony around Burns Night each year, and was one of only two objects from the National Galleries of Scotland that remained in the building when it was renovated between 2009 and 2011.

In 2017 Douglas Gordon, the Turner Prize-winning artist, used the work as part of his installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival, questioning the depiction of Burns in the sculpture as a national hero. For Black Burns, Gordon used black marble to create a replica statue, which he then shattered and displayed on the floor of the gallery at the foot of Flaxman’s sculpture.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

(inscription), c.1826–c.1828, statue in white marble by John Flaxman (1755–1826) and Thomas Denman

The Flaxman sculpture bears the simple inscription 'Robert Burns / Born Near Ayr, 25th Jany 1759. Died at Dumfries, 21st July 1796.' When the sculpture was completed, George Thomson wrote to Sir Walter Scott to ask him to write an inscription for the work. His reply was simple: 'Give the name of the Poet. Who does not know the rest?' 

Rhona Taylor, Coordinator for Art UK's Sculpture Project

Thanks to Imogen Gibbon, deputy director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Becky Howell, archivist at the National Galleries of Scotland, and Helen Scott, curator at the City of Edinburgh Council.

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