"Sights of Memory: Robert Burns and Romantic-era Book Illustration"

This page contains images referred to in my chapter on "Sights of Memory: Robert Burns and Romantic-era Book Illustration" in the Oxford Handbook to Robert Burns (edited by Gerard Carruthers; forthcoming). My chapter examines book illustrations connected to the works of Robert Burns published in the Romantic era. It considers how the initial publication of Burns’s oeuvre and the subsequent shaping of the poet’s reputation after his death mapped onto changes in the technical processes of book illustration as the industry shifted from copper-plate to woodcut and steel-plate engraving. It argues that the increasing proliferation of illustrations in books in the early nineteenth century contributed to the production of Burns not just as a site but also as a sight of cultural memory, as visual representations of the poet, his works, and the countryside in which he lived became synonymous with the production of Scotland as a tourist destination. 

Burns was defined visually during his lifetime by a single image: his author’s vignette. The original Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect contained no images apart from printer’s ornaments. It was Burns’s Edinburgh publisher, William Creech, who conceived of the idea of including an engraving of the author as a frontispiece to a new edition of the Poems. Creech arranged for Burns to have his portrait painted by the artist Alexander Nasmyth (see right), then he passed the portrait on a friend of Burns, John Beugo, who asked for several more sittings of the subject so that he could make his engraving of the portrait more reflective of the likeness of the poet.

The Nasmyth image was strategically deployed in different texts to emphasize different aspects of the poet. Compare, for example, this image of the frontispiece of James Currie's Works of Robert Burns; with An Account of his Life, and a Criticism on His Writings (1800) (above) with the frontispiece of the 1802 edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (left).  

At the same time as variations on Burns’s vignette was circulating in a variety of editions, visual representations of scenes from poems by Burns were also being used to entice and entertain readers. At first, such illustrations were limited to frontispieces, but developments in techologies of illustration over the course of the early nineteenth century made the inclusion of numerous illustrations within one volume easier and cheaper. 

The early nineteenth century also witnessed the development of another genre of book publication that drew on and amplified the associations between Burns and his local area: topographical and travel accounts of “The Land of Burns,” reflecting the general popularity of illustrated tourist guides to locations in the British Isles. 

As Scotland became more accessible and tourism became more affordable for more people in Britain, tourist-oriented travelogues proliferated. Such publications encouraged readers to put themselves in Burns’s place either literally, by embarking on a tour of Scotland themselves, or figuratively, by viewing illustrations that placed readers either in the position of the artist or of the tourists depicted in the background. Such publications reconfigured Burns’s poetry as a medium that paved the way for a more immediate connection of the reader with the Scottish landscape.