Tuesday, September 12, 2023

John Steell's 1880 Robert Burns Statue - Central Park


In 1872 a statue of author Walter Scott was unveiled in Central Park.  Designed by eminent Scottish sculptor John Steell, it was the gift of Scottish Americans, who almost immediately laid plans for a second monument to a countryman.  In April 1873, a movement started within the Caledonian Club to erect a statue to Scottish poet Robert Burns.  Not surprisingly, John Steell was the selected artist for the project.

Within five years sufficient funds had been raised to commission the work, and on September 15, 1877, The New York Times reported:

It is probable that within the next year the group of statues at the lower end of the Mall in Central Park will receive a notable addition, namely, a companion to Steell's noble representation of Sir Walter Scott, in the shape of a colossal bronze figure by the same sculptor of Scotland's best-loved minstrel, Robert Burns.

The article reiterated that in 1873 "a number of Scottish residents" had determined that Steell should handle the task.  By now the St. Andrew's Society was highly involved, but The New York Times stressed that, despite the ongoing and devastating Financial Panic of 1873, the funds raised represented all "the Scottish people in New-York."   (The Panic was the equivalent of the 1929 Stock Market crash).

At the time of the article, Steell had "only blocked out in the rough" the statue.  The 73-year-old sculptor had been knighted by Queen Victoria the previous year for his statue, The Prince Consort.  He told reporters that the Burns statue would "be his last and his best."

The New York Times's prediction that the statue would be in place on the Mall the following summer was optimistic.  It was not until three years later, on August 18, 1880, that the Edinburgh Scotsman reported, "Sir John Steell, R.S.A., has now completed, and is about to dispatch for its destination, the bronze statue of Robert Burns."  The article reminded its readers that a "number of Scottish-Americans, proud of their fatherland and its literature," had erected the Steell monument of Scott in 1872.  "Hardly had this fine work been placed on its pedestal when the admiration which it attracted suggested the desirableness of obtaining, from the same hand, a companion statue of Scotland's greatest poet," it said.

The nine-foot-tall statue would be placed on a solid granite pedestal "between 6 and 7 feet high," according to the New York Dispatch.  The newspaper added that the pedestal alone "weighs fourteen tons."  The Anchor Company steamship line had offered to ship the statue free of charge.  The Edinburgh Scotsman noted it "is intended, we believe, to be placed vis-à-vis of the Scott."  And, indeed, the two statues would face one another on the section of the Mall known today as Literary Walk.

The Burns statue arrived in New York on September 7, 1880, during the preparation for the cornerstone laying ceremonies of the Obelisk (familiarly known as Cleopatra's Needle) in Central Park.  The unveiling took place at 3:00 on October 2.  Among the 100 dignitaries on the grandstand were Cyrus W. Field, Chauncey M. Depew, Alexander Hamilton, Jr., General Grant Wilson, and John Taylor Johnston.  According to The New York Times, "at least 5,000 persons were seated or standing around the figure."

Steell had depicted Burns seated outside, pensively writing the lines to his poem "To Mary in Heaven."  The first stanza of the work was engraved on a scroll at his feet:

Though lingering star of lessening ray,
Again thou usherest in the day.
Where Mary from my heart was taken.

The New York Times explained, "The statue is meant to represent Burns in the early morning at the spot where he took a last farewell of his Highland Mary, looking at the planet Venus."

Following the unveiling, which was "greeted with a long round of applause," George William Curtis delivered a lengthy and moving address.  "At the conclusion of the address, few Scottish eyes were free from tears," reported The New York Times.  The ceremony was concluded with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" by the audience.

Harper's Weekly, October 16, 1880 (copyright expired)

Not everyone was overly enthusiastic.  In his 1881 book Bibliography of Robert Burns, Scottish writer James McKie wrote, without providing a name, "An American art critic writes 'while the Sculptor has had a fine idea in representing the Poet as he has done...the Statue is far from a success artistically.'"  The arcane critic went on to point out that Burns "is represented as round-shouldered to a degree bordering on deformity," that the right arm was "clumsily modelled," and that "the body seems too long for the legs."

And on November 13, 1880, The Illustrated London News said somewhat mockingly, "It has often been observed, with some amusement, by less enthusiastic Englishmen, that there is a sort of emulation among Scotchmen of vehement literary attachments, between the devotees of Sir Walter and those who swear by the Ayshire lyrical poet.  This may probably have occasioned the setting up of the Burns statue, directly fronting the Scott statue, in the Mall of the New York Central Park."

In the background of this 19th century stereoscopic view of the statue can be seen John Q. A. Ward's Indian Hunter image from the collection of the UC Riverside, California Museum of Photography

Despite foreign derision, Americans embraced the Burns statue.   In 1906, humorist I. S. Cobb used it as a measuring stick of taste and culture when compared to the Midwestern city of Chicago.  In an article titled "New York Thro' Funny Glasses" in The Evening World on January 5, he told the story of a New Yorker showing a Chicagoan around.  Unimpressed, the visitor said, "I'll bet there isn't a man in town who keeps a cow."

The New Yorker replied in part, "Let Chicago brag in the vulgar Chicago way of Mrs. O'Leary's cow and the macadamized river.  What are they compared to the surpassing architectural beauty of our post-office and the unparalleled grace of the statue of Robert Burns in Central Park?"

For decades the Burns statue was the terminus of annual celebrations of the poet's birthday.  They included a parade of "members of the thirty societies in the Robert Burns Memorial Association," according to The New York Times in July 1928, and attracted "Scots from many parts of the country."  On June 28, 1931, the newspaper described the ceremonies, saying that the societies "marched up Seventh Avenue and into Central Park to the tunes of the bagpipes yesterday."  Along with the kilted pipers were British veterans of the "Great War," American Girl Scouts, and other organizations.

As years passed, the monument suffered.  Having become unstable in 1940, the pedestal was reconstructed by the Park's monuments crew.  The project was repeated in 1993.  At that time the quill, which had been stolen or lost, was replicated and the sculpture conserved.  On the bicentennial of Burns's death on October 26, 1996, hundreds of people gathered for an event sponsored by several Robert Burns and Scottish-American societies.  Among the entertainers that day was folk singer Jean Redpath.

 photographs by the author
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