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Robert Burns Lives!
Welcome Home, Mr. Burns by Deirdre Nicholls

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

At the suggestion years ago of several friends, most notably Thomas Keith of New York City, I began collecting Burnsiana. I started with little items and now have several boxes…yes, boxes, because when we moved to Lake Lanier north of Atlanta, there was not as much room as we had and so some are still boxed. In the meantime, I became interested in collecting Burns sculptures and found some less than two feet high that I could display on my desk and credenza. As the years went by, my images of Burns grew in size when we purchased several busts of Burns, including a bronze created at a foundry in Texas and a marble crafted in Edinburgh. Last week I took possession of a bronze head of the Bard by accomplished and well-known artist and sculptor Deirdre Nicolls of Edinburgh. Deirdre had displayed the piece several years ago during the annual Burns Conference at University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

No two paintings of Burns are alike, and I have studied the different shapes of his head sketched over the years. But a talk at the Burns Club of Atlanta by Professor Patrick Scott was very revealing to me as he and Professor Ross Roy gave members of the club a fascinating presentation on this subject. My conclusion was that no one really captured the looks of Burns while he was alive. While Deirdre’s sculpture was entirely different from the usual ones of Burns and from the photos that we see, her work kept gnawing at me as time passed. Simply put, her explanation below was what sold me on her model of Burns. Susan and I decided to go for it and I can’t believe we will ever regret doing so. We are proud to have this fine interpretation of Burns by Deirdre.

In emails we started referring to him as Mr. Burns, and it was so gratifying to receive one of the last from her saying, “Mr. Burns is on his way” to his American home. A few days later I could reply that “Mr. Burns is safely at home in America.” Well, Mr. Burns is still sitting where he was unpacked and will remain there until we decide where he will be most comfortable. I do not think you are supposed to say men are beautiful, but I can truthfully say without hesitation that this Mr. Burns is!

It is a pleasure to welcome Deirdre Nicholls to our pages this week. I decided to use her email explaining how her interpretation of Mr. Burns came about. She recently finished a sculpture of Nelson Mandela that sits in what we here in the States would call Glasgow’s City Hall. I plan to share with you how the other Burns busts ended up at our lake house Waverley over the weeks to come.
(FRS: 4.29.15)

By Deirdre Nicholls

Sculptor at Studio Summerhall

Dear Frank,

The idea for the work came from Professor David Purdie, of the Edinburgh Burns Club. He asked me to produce a model so he could have a plaster cast, at a time when he was co-editing the latest edition of the Burns Encyclopaedia, which was published in 2013. The plaster cast of Burns sits in Prof Purdie’s study, inspiring him…

This was a daunting task, because of Burns’s iconic global status; however, I decided to treat it as I treat all my subjects. I start from first principles; first of all establishing how big Burns’ skull might have been. We knew he was above average height, and so I could make a reasonable estimate of the size of his skull. As the piece was designed for a domestic interior, I decided to make him life size. If I am asked to create a piece for a public area, I make it a little larger (My Nelson Mandela is 10% over life size).

Once the rough size and shape of the head is worked out in the clay, I start with a profile. I use terracotta for modelling because I like its warm look for the human face. For reference, I used only the images which were made during Burns’ lifetime. Luckily there are two excellent profiles, which are so similar, that I believed I could take them as being accurate. I used the Alexander Reid miniature, which is currently on display at the Burns Museum in Alloway, alongside my own Artist’s Proof bronze. This is a beautiful little painting. I also referred to the silhouette by John Miers in 1787. I gave Burns long hair tied back with a ribbon, because this can be seen in the Miers silhouette, and is also referred to by Dr Robert Anderson, who met Burns in Edinburgh and wrote about his appearance to Dr James Currie. This letter was published in the Burns Chronicle of 1925.

After working on the profile, I then moved to the 3/4 view, and for this, Nasmyth’s portrait was the reference point. Nasmyth’s work is supported by an engraving by John Buego from 1787. Buego knew Burns, and although his drawing was clearly based on Nasmyth’s, the fact that it is so similar, and that the two men were friends, gave me confidence that this too would be a good reference point.

My own experience and knowledge of anatomy was drawn upon to fill the gaps in available material. I was confident that the combination of skull size, good profile source material and equally good 3/4 view, plus the information that he wore his hair tied back would help me get the facts of his appearance to a fair degree of accuracy. As for creating the expression, that is a piece of magic that comes only at the end, after a long struggle! What I do is to try to balance the impression given between the mouth and the eyes. Towards the end, I work in changing lights, and try to make the piece look different in different lights and from different angles, so that the more one lives with it, the more you can see.

I hope this is helpful.

Very best wishes


Deirdre Nicholls
Studio 606

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