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  • Illustrated Glasgow Editions of Robert Burns’s Poems, 1800–1802
  • Sandro Jung (bio)

Robert Burns, illustrations, illustrated editions, engravings, frontispiece, Poetical Miscellany

In the late 1790s, booksellers and printsellers throughout Scotland commissioned engraved illustrations to capitalise on the growing demand for new editions of Robert Burns’s poems. While some of Burns’s poems had been illustrated before 1800, the illustration of Burns’s poetry in Scotland would start on an ambitious scale only with James Morison’s illustrated 1812 edition featuring twenty-four engraved designs by John Burnet, Andrew Geddes and Thomas Clerk.1 Yet, even before that edition, booksellers and printsellers issued smaller-scale ventures which promoted the burgeoning field of Scottish book illustration. This note is a contribution to the charting of early illustrated Scottish editions. It will focus on those issued by Stewart and Meikle and subsequently Thomas Stewart, contextualise their contribution to the history of Burns illustration, and offer supplementary information on the illustrations that J. W. Egerer’s A Bibliography of Robert Burns does not record.

When the Glasgow bookselling firm of Stewart and Meikle published their two-volume sestodecimo edition of Allan Ramsay’s poems (which had been issued in seven parts between January and May at a price of 6d. per number) in 1797,2 their edition distinguished itself from others on the market through its six illustrations by William Weir as well as its additional textual paraphernalia, for: ‘This Work also contains a description of the Scenery of the Gentle Shepherd from the elegant pen of Lord Eskgrove; a short Critique on that Comedy; a Biographical Sketch of the Life of Mr. Ramsay; and several Poetical Pieces which never appeared in any former edition.’ In addition to five full-page plates, the edition comprised ‘a highly finished emblematical Frontispiece, including a medallion head of the Author’.3 The frontispiece depicted a pastoral setting in which a likeness of [End Page 133] the poet (based on a design by his son) is placed to transform the scene into a locus for memorialisation (Figure 1a).4 While the full-page plates of the edition were reused in subsequent editions of Ramsay’s poems by booksellers such as the Edinburgh-based Thomas Oliver and James Robertson, the frontispiece was not reused in editions of Ramsay’s texts. It was, however, adapted for The Poetical Miscellany; containing posthumous poems, songs, epitaphs and epigrams, which Stewart and Meikle published on 25 January 1800 (Figure 1b).5

Stewart and Meikle’s Poetical Miscellany was a gathering of individually published chapbooks of Robert Burns’s poems, including, among others, ‘The Kirk’s Alarm’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘Extempore verses on dining with Lord Daer’, which had been issued in seven 2d. numbers from 13 July to 31 August 1799.6 It included original, hitherto unpublished poetry such as ‘The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata’, which was singled out in the statement ‘To the Public’, for, according to the anonymous editor, the poem ‘is sufficient to give celebrity to any collection’. One year later it was commended again: ‘for humorous description, and nice discrimination of character, it is inferior to no poem of the same length, in the whole of English poetry’.7 Gathering the various separately printed poems together, Stewart and Meikle generated a canon of Burns’s poems that would complement the texts of James Currie’s edition of the poet’s works.

The issuing of chapbooks of poetry was established as a way of marketing short productions at a fairly low cost to both bookseller and purchaser. Stewart and Meikle were not the only booksellers to adopt this practice, but the Glasgow firms of Brash and Reid and Cameron and Murdoch (and, after 1798, John Murdoch on his own) equally issued well-printed chapbook versions of poems. Cameron and Murdoch issued poetical chapbooks of, among other titles, ‘The Deserted Village’, ‘Child Maurice’ and ‘George Barnwell’ and, in 1799, gathered these together in two collections, The Polyhymnia: Being a Collection of Poetry, Original and Selected (which also included Burns’s ‘The Bonny Lass of Ballochmyle’) and A Weekly Miscellany. Consisting chiefly of Original Poems.8

Brash and Reid collected their chapbooks in their two-volume anthology...


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