Our fifth literary walk comprised a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery followed by a visit to the Old Calton Cemetery and an ascent of Calton Hill.
Portraiture and sculpture added a graphic dimension to some of the writers and poets first we first encountered in the Old Town Edinburgh. The Poets’ Pub provided an excellent visual introduction to Scotland’s 20th century literary renaissance.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery:
Great Hall Sculpture:
Robert Burns (mountain daisy in hand): Statue by John Flaxman (1828), was originally inside the Burns Mausoleum on Regent Road
Sir Walter Scott:
Robert Louis Stevenson
Poets’ Pub – Alexander Moffat’s 1980 painting depicts nine Scots poets associated with the 20th century Scottish literary revival. The poets congregated mainly at Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal. As a member of the artistic/literary movement, Moffat knew the poets personally. To view the painting, visit the National Galleries on line collection:
Second Floor: Age of Enlightenment Gallery
- Robert Burns, by Alexander Nasmyth: The Sitter and painter, young contemporaries, established a firm friendship. They enjoyed Edinburgh tavern life and famously walked overnight to Roslin Glen (“Let’s awa’ to Roslin). Sir Walter Scott had interesting observations on Nasmyth’s portrait and Burns’ appearance, and could remember Burns’ appearance as a young man:
(Burns’) features are represented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture, but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive, than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school- ie none of your modern agriculturists, who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye along, I think, indicated the poetical temperament. It was large and of a dark cast, and glowed ( I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time.
The painting was commissioned by the bookseller, William Creech, to be engraved on the frontispiece of Burns’ Edinburgh edition of poetry.
- William Creech, by Henry Raeburn, a portrait of the clearly prosperous bookseller in later life. Creech’s Luckenbooth on the High Street attracted the principal literary figures of the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century, including Henry Mackenzie and, of course, Robert Burns. He published the Lounger and became Lord Provost of Edinburgh.
- Lord Braxfield, by Henry Raeburn. Braxfield was an object of fascination to Robert Stevenson, so much so that he asked his publisher to send him a copy of Cockburn’s Memorials of His Time, with its memorable description of Braxfield, to Samoa. In an early essay on the paintings of Henry Raeburn, Stevenson describes another Raeburn portrait of Braxfield: The tart, rosy, humerous look of the man, his nose resting squarely on the jowl, has been caught and perpetuated with something that looks like brotherly love. A peculiarly subtle expression haunts the lower part, sensual and incredulous, like that of a man tasting good Bordeaux with half a fancy it has been somewhat too long uncorked…
Braxfield presided at the trials for sedition in the later 1790s (of Thomas Muir and William Skirving) and was also the trial judge at Deacon Brodie’s trial. There is a good John Kay print of Brodie in one of the covered picture cases, alongside a caricature of the highly eccentric lord Monboddo (note the picture hanging behind Monboddo. The learned judge and philosopher had a theory that humans originally had tails)
- Boyd, William, Restless, 2006: The story of a glamorous Russian spy who undergoes part of her espionage training in the streets of Edinburgh. She ducks in and out of Jenners and the North British as she attempts to give her pursuers the slip: “She was walking quickly , purposefully, not glancing back, but her head was full of the knowledge that at least six people were following her…”. Boyd’s New Confessions is an earlier Edinburgh novel, its protagonist brought up in fictitious Kelpie’s Close, a lofty tenement block somewhere off the Lawnmarket.
- Stephenson, RL: Picturesque Notes is excellent on Calton Hill. he also uses it as the scene of a robbery in the semi-autobiographical short story, The Misadventures of John Nicolson.
- Burns, Robert: Address to Edinburgh 1786. Burns, perhaps on one of his walks with his friend, the painter Alexander Nasmyth ,may well have been inspired by the view from Calton Hill and the emergent New Town at his feet:
Where once, beneath a Monarch’s feet,
Sat Legislation’s sov’reign pow’rs:
From marking wildly scatt’red flow’rs,
As on the banks of Ayr I stray’d,
And singing, lone, the lingering hours,
Here Wealth still swells the golden tide,
As busy Trade his labours plies;
There Architecture’s noble pride
Bids elegance and splendour rise:
Here Justice, from her native skies,
High wields her balance and her rod;
Seeks Science in her coy abode.