Vandalised monument found in Australia may be oldest Robert Burns statue

The Burns statue in the botanical gardens in Camperdown, Victoria

The nose is broken off, the eye socket damaged and parts of the hat brim missing. But this battered monument, newly discovered in an obscure part of Australia, is believed to be the oldest surviving statue of Robert Burns.

The race is now on to save the decaying work, which was carved about 30 years after the poet died in 1796 and shipped to Australia in the 1850s by a wealthy Scot.

For more than 150 years the statue has occupied a small corner of the botanical gardens in Camperdown, a small town in rural Victoria, its true value and historical worth forgotten — until a chance discovery by an Australian writer and historian during a research trip to Scotland.

Gordon Ashley said that the statue was carved by the Scots sculptor John Greenshields in 1826-27 and may be the only one based on a portrait of Burns by Burns’s friend Peter Taylor, an amateur artist. All other statues were based on a likeness by the painter Alexander Nasmyth.

Mr Ashley is fighting to save the statue, which has suffered from weather, age and vandalism, and as a result of his efforts, the National Trust of Australia last week removed it from the gardens for safe-keeping. He has also appealed to the Scottish government for help to bring it back to Scotland for restoration.

Mr Ashley, 68, said that the statue was priceless. “It should be regarded as the primary icon, not just because it was the first done of Burns, but because ‘photographically’, if nothing else, it is superior to that produced by Alexander Nasmyth, the professional artist,” he said.

Mr Ashley became interested in the statue after coming across a reference to a Greenshields carving thought to have been taken to Australia in the 1850s in documents at the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway. “I knew if that statue was still ‘alive’, I had the makings of wonderful story,” he said.

He knew that Greenshields had carved one of Burns for a Tam O’Shanter set circa 1826-27 and that Sir Walter Scott had reported seeing a Burns statue in Greenshields’ workshop in January 1829.

On his return to Australia, Mr Ashley tracked down the statue to Camperdown, 119 miles (193km) south west of Melbourne. It was in poor condition, with the hat, face and coat vandalised. The citation reads: “Burns, from an original painting by his friend, Peter Taylor, Edinburgh, 1786. By John Greenshields, sculptor, Edinburgh, 1830. Presented to the public park by W. A. Taylor, Esq. Camperdown, 1883.”

William Taylor, who was from Leith, had been bequeathed the Taylor portrait of Burns by the artist’s wife on her death. He had shipped the statue to Australia after emigrating there and on his death in 1866 the statue passed to his son W. A. Taylor, who donated it to the town.

“The Greenshields statue is unquestionably ‘after’ the Peter Taylor portrait, down to the hat and the right hand thrust inside the vest,” Mr Ashley said. “The implications are immense, for it means that it is the only statue of Burns in the world to have been based on the Taylor portrait.”

Michael Russell, the Minister for Culture, told Mr Ashley that the government did not have funds for a restoration project but would help to put him in contact with other organisations that might wish to discuss hosting the statue in Scotland.

Published in: on June 5, 2009 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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