Object Number: 3.4521
On display: in the museum exhibition space
This remarkable chair is made of wood sourced from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’s work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect known as ‘The Kilmarnock Edition’. It was published on the 31st July 1786 at the cost of three shillings per copy. 612 copies were printed and the edition was sold out in just over a month after publication. The printing press no longer exists but in its stead there are two statues: one of Burns and one of John Wilson (the owner of the press) to commemorate the publication of Burns’s first works.
This chair was constructed in 1858, just before the Burns Centenary Festival in Ayr in 1859. The one hundredth year anniversary of the bard’s birth was celebrated far and wide by many. One contemporary counted 676 local festivals in Scotland alone, thus, showing the widespread popularity of Burns.
The chair has plush red velvet on the cushion and is elaborately carved with symbolism and references to some of Burns’s most loved works. Each arm rest ends with a carving of a dog, Luath and Caesar, from the poem ‘The Twa Dogs’.
A carving of Robert Burns himself, after the artist Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait – whereby he is shown fashionably dressed in a waistcoat, tailcoat and stalk – is placed in the centre at the highest point of the back of the chair with the infamous characters Tam and Souter Johnnie from the narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ on either side. Thistles, commonly regarded as the floral national emblem of Scotland, decorate the gaps between the figures.
The central carving is of the climactic scene of Tam crossing the Brig o’ Doon atop of his trusty cuddie (horse in Scots) Meg with Nannie the witch at their heels. The Brig o’ Doon is actually a real bridge and is located in Alloway where Burns was born and lived for seven years.
A small plaque above this quotes a verse from Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ which was written in 1785 and published in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It takes the form of a poetic ‘dream vision’, a form used in medieval Scottish verse and revived by Allan Ramsay in his own poem ‘The Vision’, from which Burns takes his title and was influenced and inspired by immensely. In the long narrative poem, Burns as speaker returns from a hard day in the fields and, after resting by the fireside, falls into a dream state in which he is visited by Coila, a regional muse. Coila (whom the speaker is clearly attracted to) addresses Burns, describing how she watched his development from a young age – thereby offering an imaginative reworking of Burns’s emergence as a poetic talent. She ends with a confirmation of his poetic mission and crowns him as bard. The striking thing here is the self-consciousness Burns displays about his position even this early in his career.
The inclusion of these particular carvings could be symbolism of the themes in which Burns explored most through his works: nature with the dogs representing this; the supernatural via the Brig o’ Doon scene; comradery through Tam and Souter Johnnie the “drouthy cronie” and the nature of the self and humankind through the quote from ‘The Vision’ and Robert Burns himself.
Interestingly, during a visit to Burns Cottage in 1965, the boxing legend Muhammad Ali was pictured sitting in this chair. Following this visit he was made an honorary member of Alloway Burns Club. If you are intrigued by this then please read a previous blog by volunteer Alison Wilson about an extraordinary meeting to do with this celebrity visit to Alloway here: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/memories-of-muhammad-ali/.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee.
RBBM Curator Rebecca Stapley kicks off our new series of blog posts, A Day in Life… An insight into the goings on behind the scenes of the museum and the people that make it tick.
What’s the first thing you did when you arrived this morning?
I got in at 8.30am and turned my computer on. I then went straight into the museum to put the Hanwell monitors back into the display cases. These are the small white boxes that you’ll see in the museum. They monitor light and humidity levels and need to be taken out to be calibrated once a year – there’s 34 of them so it takes a while to put them all back! The doors need to be opened with special rollers with suction pads, and I need a stepladder to reach the top of the cases, and then I need a trolley to hold all the Hanwells as I go around…and it all needs to be done before we open to the public at 10am!
Give me a brief description of what you did today.
Today I: Put the Hanwells back. Checked the glass cases in the museum for finger marks and nose smudges and polished with the PEL museum cloths. Answered enquiries about foreign language translations, old books, and the lighting levels in the museum. Took a phone-call from a documentary maker. Cleaned the tabletop in the Monument. Swept up escaped soil from our contemporary art installation! Talked to a family of kids about their favourite house in the contemporary art installation (the metal house with all the cracks won hands down). Put together information on the public art around the site. Answered internal emails (and drank a lot of ginger tea at my desk!) Oh, and then I sat down and answered these questions.
How would you describe a normal day in the life of a Curator at RBBM?
At a risk of sounding clichéd – there isn’t a ‘normal’ day in the life of a curator! There’s always something different to do, or someone new to talk to (in person or on the phone). For instance, on Monday last week I was at a local nursing home with the Education team; on the Tuesday I gave a tour of the site to a group of people (and removed all the Hanwells from the cases); on Wednesday I was at my desk answering emails and enquiries and on Thursday I was at HQ in Edinburgh for meetings with the Collections team and the Trust librarian. (I was off on Friday!)
What’s your favourite thing about the job?
I have lots of favourite things about my job….but I do really enjoy the opportunity to talk to people from all over the world about Burns, the museum collection and the wider site: the Monument and gardens, Burns Cottage, Brig o Doon and the Auld Kirk.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you working at RBMM so far?
The strangest thing that I’ve done so far in this job was throwing haggis at a photographer while I was dressed in 18th century costume. It was a freezing day, my hands got covered in gunk from the haggis, and we were on the pavement outside Burns cottage with the photographer lying practically in the road as I hurled haggis at his head. We got a lot of very slow-moving cars driving past! (this was a photo-shoot for our annual Haggis-Hurling competition)