Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
James Burnet

BURNET, JAMES, Landscape Painter.—Among the lives of eminent men it often happens that some individual obtains a place, more on account of the excellence he indicated than that which he realized; and whom a premature death extinguishes, just when a well-spent youth of high promise has commenced those labours by which the hopes he excited would in all likelihood be amply fulfilled. Such examples we do not willingly let die, and this must form our chief apology for the introduction of a short memoir of James Burnet in the present work. He was of a family that came originally from Aberdeen, and was born at Musselburgh, in the year 1788. His father, George Burnet, of whom he was the fourth son, held the important office of general surveyor of excise in Scotland: his mother, Anne Cruikshank, was sister to the distinguished anatomist whose name is so honourably associated with the professional studies of John Hunter. In the education of most minds that attain to distinguished excellence, it will generally be found that the maternal care predominates in helping to form the young ideas, and give them their proper direction; and such was the good fortune of James Burnet, whose mother, during the evening, was wont to aid him in the preparation of the school-room lessons for the following day. He soon evinced his natural bias towards art, not only by juvenile attempts in drawing, but his frequent visits to the studio of Scott, the landscape engraver, with whom his brother John, afterwards so eminent as an engraver, was a pupil. On account of these indications, James was placed under the care of Liddel, to learn the mystery of wood-carving, at that time in high request, and productive of great profit to those who excelled in it; and as skill in drawing was necessary for acquiring proficiency in this kind of delineation, he was also sent to the Trustees’ Academy, where he studied under Graham, the early preceptor of the most distinguished of our modern Scottish artists. It was not wonderful that, thus circumstanced, James Burnet’s taste for carving in wood was soon superseded by the higher departments of art. He quickly perceived the superiority of a well-finished delineation upon canvas or paper over the stiff cherubs, scrolls, and wreaths that were laboriously chiselled upon side-boards and bed-posts, and chose his vocation accordingly: he would be an artist. With this view, he transmitted to his brother John, now employed as an engraver in London, several specimens of his drawings, expressing also his earnest desire to commence life as a painter in the great metropolis; and without waiting for an answer, he impatiently followed his application, in person, and arrived in London in 1810. A letter of acquiescence from his brother, which his hurry had anticipated, was already on the way to Edinburgh, and therefore his arrival in London, although so sudden and unexpected, was far from being unwelcome.

It required no long stay in the British capital to convince the young aspirant that he had much yet to learn before he could become an artist. But he also found that London could offer such lessons as Edinburgh had been unable to furnish. This conviction first struck him on seeing Wilkie’s "Blind Fiddler," of which his brother John was executing the well-known and justly-admired engraving. James was arrested and rivetted by the painting, so unlike all he had hitherto admired and copied: it was, he perceived, in some such spirit as this that he must select from nature, and imitate it, if he would succeed in his daring enterprise. This conviction was further confirmed by studying the productions of the eminent Dutch masters in the British Gallery, where he found that originality of conception was not only intimately blended with the truthfulness of nature, but made subservient to its authority. He must therefore study nature herself where she was best to be found—among the fields, and beneath the clear skies, where the beauty of form and the richness of colour presented their infinite variety to the artist’s choice, and taught him the best modes of arranging them upon the canvas. Forth he accordingly went, with nothing but his note-book and pencil; and among the fields, in the neighbourhood of London, he marked with an observant eye the various objects that most struck his fancy, and made short sketches of these, to be afterwards amplified into paintings. It was remarked, also, in this collection of hasty pencillings that instead of seeking to aggrandize the works of nature, he faithfully copied them as he found them. "He has introduced," says a judicious critic, speaking of one of his paintings, "everything that could in any way characterize the scene. The rainbow in the sky, the glittering of the rain upon the leaves; the dripping poultry under the hedge, the reflections of the cattle on the road, and the girl with the gown over her shoulders, all tend with equal force to illustrate his subject." Not content, also, with the mere work of sketching in the fields, he was accustomed to note down in his book such observations in connection with the sketch as might be available for the future picture, or those remarks in reference to light and shade that were applicable to painting in general. The result of this training was soon perceptible in the increasing excellence of his successive productions, of which Allan Cunningham, his biographer, well remarks:—"His trees are finely grouped; his cows are all beautiful; they have the sense to know where the sweetest grass grows; his milk-maids have an air of natural elegance about them, and his cow-boys are not without grace."

Of the paintings of James Burnet, some of which are in the possession of his relatives, and others among the costly picture galleries of our nobility, the following is a list:—

1. Cattle going out in the morning.
2. Cattle returning home in a shower.
3. Key of the byre.
4. Crossing the brook.
5. Cow-boys and cattle.
6. Breaking the ice.
7. Milking.
8. Crossing the bridge.
9. Inside of a cow-house.
10. Going to market.
11. Cattle by a pool in summer.
12. Boy with cows.

While Burnet was thus pursuing a course of self-education that drew him onward step by step in improvement, and promised to conduct him to a very high rank among pastoral and landscape painters, a disease had latterly attended him in his wanderings, that too often selects the young and the sensitive for its victims. This was consumption, a disease which his lonely habits and sedentary employment in the open air were only too apt to aggravate; and, although a change of scene and atmosphere was tried by his removal to Lee in Kent, it was soon evident that his days were numbered. Even then, however, when scarcely able to walk, he was to be found lingering among the beautiful scenery of Lee and Lewisham, with his pencil and note-book in hand, and to the last he talked with his friends about painting, and the landscapes that he still hoped to delineate. He died on the 27th of July, 1816. His dying wish was to be buried in the village church of Lee, in whose picturesque church-yard he had so often wandered and mused during the last days of his illness; but as sepulture in that privileged place could not be granted to a stranger, his remains were interred in the churchyard of Lewisham. At his death he had only reached his twenty-eighth year.

Return to our Significant Scots Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus