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FURNITURE ASSOCIATED WITH ROBERT BURNS by David Jones
For over two hundred years the cult of Robert Burns, national poet of Scotland, has been responsible for the preservation of certain pieces of furniture associated with the man and his life. These items are now in scattered locations, but they originate mainly from the West Country counties of Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire where Burns worked a succession of small farms, finally settling in a small town house in Dumfries, where he died in 1796. The furniture can be divided into two categories: the first, items which Burns and his family were known to have used; and the second, commemorative pieces which have been made from ‘relic’ timbers salvaged from objects and places associated with the poet’s short and peripatetic life. The first category can shed some useful light upon the nature of common furniture in the western counties during the late eighteenth century’, and the second includes antiquarian chairs which are some of the earliest Romantic movement tributes to a literary or historical figure.
The chair illustrated in Figure 6, made by John Underwood and James Loumgair, was made from remains of the oak rafters that composed the old roof of Alloway Kirk, Ayrshire, and presented to Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton, in 1818.10 It is bedecked with references to the poet’s work. The front seat rail bears an inlaid plough (a reference to Henry Mackenzie’s description of Burns) and the inscription ‘IN MEMORY OF ROBT. BURNS’. The brass panels, between the Gothic arcading that forms the principal decoration of the chair back, are engraved with the poem Tam o’Shanter and signed ‘Robb McWhinnie, Sculp, Ayr’. McWhinnie was an engraver and sculptor in Ayr. The back of the chair is painted with a grisaille scene depicting witches and warlocks dancing, a scene from the poem which appears to have inspired a later painting and popular print by John Faed.11 The supposedly haunted Alloway Kirk
appears in Burns’s long narrative work, Tam o’Shanter, which was originally commissioned as an accompaniment for an engraved view of the ruined monument in Francis Grose’s Antiquities o f Scotland (1789-91)(Figure 7).12 Alloway Kirk was of modest antiquity, dating from the early sixteenth century and serving as a parish church until 1691 after which Alloway was joined to the parish of Ayr. Robert Burns as a boy was very well acquainted with the Kirk as he was born in Alloway and lived nearby until he was seven years old.
Although Eglinton Castle, seat of the 12th Earl, was furnished by Gillow of L ancaster in a neo-classical style,13 the house was nevertheless a suitably Romantic setting for one of the first antiquarian chairs to commemorate Robert Burns.14 The ‘Tam o’Shanter’ chair was received into a house that had been rebuilt in the Gothic ‘Castle Style’ between 1798 and 1803 by architect John Paterson, and in which the patron was attempting to create an antiquarian interior. The completed setting was later the venue for one of the most important historical-revival events of the nineteenth century, the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, the mock-mediaeval splendour of which succeeded in bankrupting the 13th Earl.15 The Burns chair of 1818 satisfied two criteria for the historically minded connoisseur; firstly, it had a striking mediaeval look created by a
combination of cluster columns, dramatic scalloped spandrels and Gothic arches, and secondly, it was made from relic timber of a firm Scottish provenance. In these respects it is very similar to another early example of commemorative ‘relic’ furniture; the ‘Robroyston’ chair, that was made for Sir Walter Scott c. 1822.16 In addition to being made from fragments of historic wood, both chairs are very deliberately decorated with thistles. This can be read simply as a symbol of Scotland, but it is also perhaps a more specific reference to sixteenth-century Scottish carved woodwork, in which the thistle was given special prominence.17 Two Scotsmen must be credited with the original conception and subsequent promotion of the ‘Tam o’Shanter’ and ‘Robroyston chairs’. Their names are Joseph Train and David Auld, individuals who caused the first stirrings of a trade in antiquities in Scotland and whose legacy was to influence the nineteenth century. Joseph Train (1779-1852), Supervisor of Excise at Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbright and later at Cupar, Fife, was one of the first collectors of Burnsiana, many items of which he sold or gave to Walter Scott at Abbotsford,18 but he was also responsible for commissioning pieces of furniture fashioned from different Scottish relics. The ‘Robroyston’ chair was made to celebrate Sir William Wallace, and was made by a Kirkintilloch wright, John Stirling,19 from relic timber supplied by Train. This had supposedly come from the rafters of a cottage on the Robroyston estate in Lanarkshire where Wallace was abducted by the English in 1305. Train can be seen as an impresario who supplied materials and arranged for pieces to be made, but there is no evidence that he actually designed furniture.
David Auld, a merchant in Ayr, is a less well-known figure who can be credited with the original idea of making furniture to commemorate Robert Burns. His design for the ‘Tam o’Shanter’ chair in 181820 was innovative because it did not reflect fashions in contemporary domestic furniture nor was it an approximation of a historical type (as was the ‘Robroyston’ chair).21 Auld’s design was a synthesis of historical components and indeed, different materials which was to provide a useful prototype for commemorative chairs later in the nineteenth century. Auld attempted to exploit the success of his first Tam o’Shanter chair by commissioning a second version in 1822 (Figure 3). This is now in the Royal Collection at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh.22 For this second chair, which shows a different scene from the poem Tam o’Shanter on its painted back panel, Auld seems to have dispensed with the services of the cabinet maker James Loumgair, who collaborated on the first version.23 John Underwood, who was solely responsible for making the second chair, is listed in Pigot and Co.’s New Commercial Directory o f Scotland, 1825-26, as a cabinet maker and chair maker in Main Street, Ayr