By some accounts the United States has 13 statues of Robert Burns. In our January History Club meeting we will look at six of these statues: New York City; Albany, New York, Barre, Vermont; Denver, Colorado, Chicago, Illinois and San Francisco. The oldest is in Central Park, New York City, which was unveiled October 3, 1880. The Chicago statue is located in Garfield Park and was unveiled on August 25, 1906. The full story can be found in The Scots of Chicago beginning on page 56.
America does not have the honor of being first to erect a statue and perhaps neither does Scotland. That honor may go to Australia. Robert Burns had a friend by the name of Peter Taylor who lived in Edinburgh and painted houses and coaches. Apparently, Burns did sit for him and Taylor painted his portrait. This happened in 1786. If we accept Taylor as a portrait painter then this may be the best image we have of Burns.
The image we most often see is the one painted by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787. It hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Robert Burns was 28 at the time. Nasmyth was actually a landscape painter and we don’t know how good he was at painting portraits. Some believe that the painting by Peter Taylor “may be the closest likeness.” I am sure there are others who believe that Nasmyth is more accurate.
John Greenshields (1792-1835) was a sculptor who began as an apprentice stone mason and worked as a quarrier, hewer and builder before working with the mason and sculptor, Robert Forrest in 1822. His studio was at Broomhill, Clydeside Scotland. He designed the first public monument to Sir Walter Scott in George Square, but died before its final completion.
Sir Walter Scott knew Greenshields and had on several occasions visited his studio. In 1831, he saw a statue of Robert Burns and wrote: “in a sitting posture, which, all the circumstances considered, must be allowed to be a very wonderful performance.” Scott became “an important patron and admirer of Greenshields.” The statue carved by Greenshields may be the only one based on the portrait by Peter Taylor. All others are based on the likeness drawn by Alexander Nasmyth.
The statue seen by Scott in his visit to the studio of John Greenshields is thought to be the oldest one of Robert Burns that has survived. According to the British Geological Survey web site, the statue was commissioned by William Taylor of Leith between 1826 and 1830. William Taylor’s son Peter emigrated to Australia in 1876 and had the statue shipped in 1882. They indicate that it was “the only painting created when Burns was actually present.”
The citation on the statue reads: ” Burns, from an original painting by his friend, Peter Taylor, Edinburgh 1786. By John Greenshields, sculptor, Edinburgh, 1830. Presented to the public park by W. A. Taylor, Esq. Camperdown, 1883.”
Peter Taylor donated the statue to the town of Camperdown before his death. For 150 years it has occupied a small corner in the botanical gardens where it has been vandalized. “The nose is broken off, the eye socket damaged and parts of the hat brim missing.” The statue and the story were recently discovered by Gordon Ashley an Australian writer and historian. He is now fighting to save the statue. It has been removed from the gardens to a protected area and he would like the statue brought back to Scotland for repairs.
Apparently neither government has the money to ship the statue back to Scotland, so a search was started to find matching stone in Scotland. The British Geological Survey did some “stone-type fingerprinting and decided that the quarry Drumhead near Denny, Scotland “still contains exposures of rock which is of good quality and suitable for repairs.
In my Blog of November 22, 2010 (chicagoscots.net), I made comments about this story from a BBC news article. Of course, I had no idea where the Drumhead Quarry was located, so I asked for help. In less than 24 hours the owner, Tish Graham, contacted me through the Internet. She and her husband own the Quarry! They are donating the stone and by now it should be on its way to Australia. If you would like to follow this story, they have a facebook page for Drumhead Quarry. I am a follower and enjoy the information.