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Robert Burns Lives!
Deirdre Nicholls, BA (HON) ATC MBA FRSA - Burns Bronze Statue

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

One of my great joys in life is to attend various conferences or symposiums regarding Robert Burns. It doesn’t hurt if the meeting is in Scotland. So just a few weeks ago, Susan and I found ourselves one late January afternoon on a Delta flight bound for Glasgow, via Dublin, to attend the annual Burns conference at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. The symposium was aptly called Robert Burns: Artefact.

I’ve met some very interesting people at these meetings and this event was no different. Usually those I meet are speakers, simply Burns lovers like me. This time I had the privilege of meeting a lovely lady whose work as a sculptor and artist is outstanding. I am indebted to imminent Burns scholar Dr. David Purdie for introducing us.  On display at the conference was a portrait head of Robert Burns by Deirdre Nicholls, and she agreed to write the following pages explaining how this particular work came about.

Deirdre Nicholls - a sea shot taken by Professor David Purdie at Machrihanish

I love the many statues of Burns around the world and have travelled near and far to see as many of them as possible. In my home study is a bronze bust modelled after one that resides in the cottage of the Burns Club of Atlanta. Using that same mould, I commissioned a sculptor in Texas by the name of Whisper to make my piece after he had completed one for The Heather and Thistle Society in Houston which now graces the city’s International Sculpture Garden in Hermann Park.  I gave Whisper the freedom to make the bronze as if it were his own. He did! It is simply a thing of beauty.

In 2009, I inquired about a 250th official commemorative bust of the Bard celebrating his birth in Alloway in 1759 which was being offered by Stone Icons Ltd in London.  The marble sculpture was designed and hand carved by noted sculptor David Cornell and was the first to be carved since 1880.  Fortunately one was still available, and I was able to add it to our Burns memorabilia collection as well.

While in Scotland in July of that same year, Susan and I stopped off to visit Ellisland with grandchildren Ian and Stirling and their parents, son Scott and his wife Denise. We were thrilled to come away with a stunning Burns maquette that had been gifted to Ellisland years before by Les Byers, the farm’s caretaker. The group that oversees the property, Friends of Ellisland, was in need of money for their ploughing contest, and I was happy to be of help to them!

Currently sitting on the window ledge behind my credenza is a small bronze statue of Burns, a little less than two feet tall, staring across my desk at another one of Sir Walter Scott who is returning the favor. Other smaller statuaries I treasure are scattered about our office, including ones of Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

I say all this to let you know how much I prize the work of artists and sculptors. While you and I see simply a piece of stone, the sculptor sees a statue.  Or, if we see a pot of hot metal, sculptors see a bronze work of art or, as in this case, a portrait head. I may not know a lot about art, but I do know what I like and I enjoy knowing that the statuaries and art we have are keeping watch over our place of work. William Penn Warren once referred to such as A Place to Come To, better still a place called home, a place of comfort, of solitude, of joy, and at times, yes, even a place of refuge and warmth. That is why certain “creature comforts” are so important to us.

In designing her portrait head of Burns, Deirdre Nicholls relied on information from various sources to gain a true perspective of the head size of Burns.  She then turned to three images of Burns most of us are familiar with - the 1787 Miers silhouette, the 1795-96 portrait by Alexander Reid, and the 1787 Nasmyth portrait. As a result, the finished product is a rare piece of art that anyone, myself included, would love to have in their libraries or homes!

It is with pleasure I welcome talented sculptor Deirdre Nicholls to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! She has produced a new work on Burns using her own technique to design this modern piece of magnificent art. (FRS: 2.8.12) 


in Paris

Robert Burns
Bronze 2012

Actor Chris Tait, dressed as the Bard, posing with Deirdre's portrait head of Burns at the recently refurbished National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh

This work came about as a result of a suggestion from Professor David Purdie, a renowned Burns expert, and a passionate devotee of his work. Professor Purdie suggested that I produce a portrait head of Burns, and sponsored an Artist’s Proof for his study, to provide inspiration for his work.

Work began in summer 2011 on the portrait.  Using information gleaned from descriptions regarding his height and appearance, it was possible to estimate the size of Burns’ skull. 

After roughing this out in clay to the correct size and proportions, close examination was made of three images, which were produced during Burns’ lifetime.

These were:

1.      The silhouette by J. Miers, from 1787
2.      The portrait in profile by Alexander Reid from 1795-6
3.      The ¾ portrait by Alexander Nasmyth painted in 1787

Other existing images appear to be derivative, some drawings are mirror images taken from the above sources, and were therefore not used. A painting by Peter Tailor was not used as it is not a good painting, being more focussed on a large hat than the face of the poet, and shows nothing useful for a sculptor.

Larger statues of Burns exist, some of which are exquisite, but the emphasis here is on the pose and the clothing rather than on a true likeness.  What the sculptor is aiming at here is an impression of the subject. Clothing, pose and hairstyle on statues give the viewer most of the visual information they need to work out who the subject is.  The faces on these statues are therefore not very detailed, being smooth and unlined; the hair is often wig-like in its structure.  I therefore decided to use only the information available from the contemporary images and descriptions.

Using measurements from previous work on subjects of a similar height, I was able to work out the shapes and proportions of Burns’ head.

When beginning work on a portrait head, the profile is always my starting point, so the Miers and Reid works were very useful.

The biggest drawback in working from paintings is that they were designed to flatter, and there are very few lines visible; lines not only give character, they indicate the contours of the underlying structure.

in her studio with another of her pieces in background


Work on the clay took just over 2 months.

This clay was delivered to the foundry, and the long process of converting this into bronze began. 

First of all the clay was coated in a couple of layers of silicone rubber to stabilise it and to take really fine details. 

A plaster cast was made, then a wax was cast from the plaster.  The wax was then worked on by hand to refine any details and make minor alterations. This was then coated in several layers of china clay to retain as much detail as possible, before being invested and finally burnt out.  The bronze was then melted in a crucible, and poured into the mould. 

Pouring the bronze into the mould

When cool, the sculpture was cleaned up, the excess bronze removed and final small repairs and alterations completed before it was cleaned up and patinated.

A piece of heavy stone was selected at an early stage; the weight of which is ideal to support the bronze. 

The stone was prepared to take the bronze, and fittings were welded in place inside the sculpture so that the head could be securely mounted.


The plaster mould will be able to withstand up to a maximum of 9 copies, plus the 2 Artist’s proofs which have already been cast. Each piece in the edition will be signed, dated and numbered to indicate where it is in the order of casting. The first copy will therefore be marked 1/9.   For further information, please email:

Or you may contact her at The Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop,
25 Hawthornvale, Edinburgh EH6 4JT, Scotland

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