John Burr was born in Edinburgh, in 1834. His taste for Art must have shoWn itself very early, for at the age of fourteen, as he once informed us, he started as a portrait-painter, journeying from one Scottish town to another in the practice of his profession and paintlng landscapes during leisure hours, the latter being the branch of Art to which his taste inclined, and which he desired to follow. Thus far, we believe, he was entirely self-taught, but at the age of nineteen he entered the Trustee's School in Edinburgh, an academy which has sent forth so many excellent Scottish artists: it was then under the direction of the late R. S. Lauder, R.S.A., and J. Ballantyne, R.S.A. His younger brother, Mr. A. H. Burr, of whom we shall ﬁnd occasion to write in a future paper, entered with him at the same time.
In 1857 Mr. Burr exhibited ‘The Housewife,’ selected and purchased by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland; and in 1858 ‘The Strolling Musician,’ a sad and sorry violinist, blind, and in rags, playing to an audience, the majority of whom seem to possess neither “meal nor malt” wherewith to reward him: the old man, especially, is a capital study, with much of life in him. This picture was also chosen by the Association. The next year he contributed to the Scottish Academy the ‘New Frock;’ a good picture on the whole, and wanting but a little more attention to drawing, and a greater appreciation of feminine beauty, to make it a very high-class genre picture. A young matron has dressed her little daughter in a new frock to present her to the grand-parents, while the a child’s brother looks mood on, vexed that he too is not to make his appearance in a new suit. It was purchased by Mr. Johnstone, of Alva. Mr. Burr seems at this date not to have quite forsaken landscape, for he exhibited with the ‘New Frock’ two subjects of Scottish scenery that were well received; and during the two following years his principal exhibited works were marine subjects; though among his contributions to the Scottish Academy were a brilliant little painting, entitled ‘Homewards,’ and a sketch for a picture exhibited subsequently in London.
Towards the end of the year 1861 the two brothers quitted Edinburgh to try their fortunes in the south; and they have since resided in London. To the exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1862 the elder contributed ‘The Poor helping the Poor,’ from the sketch just mentioned; it teaches a lesson of charity one may often learn in the streets of our great metropolis, and which was effectively placed on the canvas by the artist. ‘A Travelling Tinker,’ exhibited at the Academy in 1863, is a picture that will bear favourable comparison with some works of the best Dutch masters. The itinerant repairer of saucepans and other metallic objects of domestic utility, is standing by a cottage-door, holding a copper kettle against the light to ascertain what damage it has received. The picture is painted with great ﬁrmness and ﬁnish in every detail. ‘The Peep-show’ was in the Royal Academy in 1864; the owner of these mysterious wooden boxes—round which young rustics cluster in village-fairs, and wild and shoeless urchins in the by—streets of cities and towns, jostling and envying other juveniles who are lucky enough to have a halfpenny in their pockets —are always characters. Mr. Burr's ‘Peep-show Man’ is an excellent specimen of his class, and those he has attracted round him are of the ordinary type of such sight-seers with which everybody is familiar. It is a humorous and very clever composition of its kind, presented in a manner that would bring credit to any artist, even of high reputation. ‘The Tender Nurse,’ though painted on a scale of canvas unnecessarily large for the subject, shows right feeling for the subject represented and much clever painting. It was a contribution to the Academy exhibition of 1865, and the last picture by Mr. Burr that hung on the walls of the gallery in Trafalgar Square; though he reappeared this year, in a progressive work, at the new gallery, Burlington House.
But in the interim he was not altogether absent from public notice. In the spring of 1865 a number of artists associated themselves to open an exhibition of water-colour drawings at the Dudley Gallery, Egyptian Hall. ‘An Old Castilian,’ contributed by Mr. Burr, gained the following emphatic praise in our pages:— “Mark the swagger of the old fellow, probably, like many of his country folks, as poor as a beggar, and as proud as a lord. See what cool insolence he throws into the smoking of his cigarette. Alto other this ﬁgure, set off by strong contrast between the reds and lacks in the costume, and distinguished by a grotesque character quite Quixotic, must be ranked as one of the comparatively few original products of the gallery.” In the year following, is drawing, entitled ‘Morning and Evening,’ in the same rooms, was one of the ﬁrst that arrested the attention of our critic: it reveals a simple story—a touching incident of cottage life, that comes close to the pathos which Edward Frére has brought home to us. Again, in 1867, Mr. Burr appeared at the Dudley Gallery in a drawing called ‘BED-TIME; ’ we have engraved it on this page from a replica of the subject painted by the artist in oils. One cannot reasonably look for novelty of treatment in what may be termed a common incident in the daily life of a Christian community throughout its various ranks and degrees. It has been truly said that “a child praying by its mother's knees is one of the prettiest incidents in Nature and Art;” and in this cottage-interior the subject is simply and perspicuously presented. The child, a sweet-faced little girl, having undergone the accustomed ablutions preparatory to being put to bed, kneels reverently beside her mother to repeat her evening prayer: the group is nicely composed. In the background an elder brother much wearied, perhaps, with keeping watch and ward over the baby in its cradle while the mother has been engaged in her household duties, is already fast asleep, yet in a position not over suggestive of comfortable repose. The ﬁgure, however, is very true to nature, for boys, and men also, when tired out, can sleep anyhow and anywhere.
“O then dull god!
* * * * * * *
Wilt than upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy‘s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge?”
In 1866 Mr. Burr, accompanied by his brother, went to Paris, and passed some time in the studio of M. Hebert, whose style, though reﬁned and naturalistic, is somewhat sentimental and decorative, and therefore, it may be presumed, could scarcely favourably inﬂuence the truth and homely vigour of that of the two young Scottish painters; and judging from their subsequent works, it has had no such effect. The only French artist of whom the brothers occasionally remind us is Edward Frére. To the Dudley Gallery exhibition of oil-pictures, in 1867, John Burr sent ‘Domestic Troubles,’ engraved as one of our large plates very recently; it is the propert of Mr. Charles C. Grimes, of Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, a liberal patron of this artist as well as of several other Scottish painters.
Many of Mr. Burr’s best works have never appeared before the public: some, for instance, of those in Mr. Grimes's collection; some, alo, in the possession of Mr. Hargitt, of Liverpool, who owns ‘Caught Napping,’ ‘Tired,’ ‘The Boat-Builder,’ &c., &c.
Among four pictures contributed by him this year to the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, was especially noticeable ‘His First Pair': a little urchin trutting in the dignity of primitive boyhood—a pair of real trousers—to the supreme delight of his mother and grandfather. To the Scottish Academy Exhibition of the present year he sent ‘Christmas Preparations;’ certainly one of the best works we ever saw from his hand. The scene is laid in a large old-fashioned room that may pass for the kitchen of a good-sized cottage. Seated at a table in the foreground, whereon is a artially plucked goose, are two women, one old, the other middle-aged; the latter holds a book—probably some erudite treatise on cookery: between the two stands a second old woman. The two elderly ladies are engaged in ﬁerce discussion over the dead bird, for one of them has her ﬁnger on its body. A What the point agitated may be, we will not attempt to decide; possibly whether the seasoning of the goose is to be inserted at the head or the tail; or whether or not onions are to form a portion of the ingredients, for one of the old ladies holds an onion in her hands. It is a humorous group: the irritated faces and action of the ancient dames contrast amusineg with the quiet demeanour of the younger female, who looks as if she were listening to evidence on both sides before pronouncing an opinion on the matter in dispute. At the farther end of the room is another table on which is a wide and deep dish containing ingredients for the Christmas pudding: three young children are clustered round it, taking advantage of the debate in the upper house to have a foretaste of the morrow’s‘dinner by dipping their ﬁngers into the uncooked mélnge ; and in the open doorway are a couple of roguish boys peeping into the room, attracted, no doubt, y the noisy disputants. The picture is most carefully painted through- out; and in colour is rich and harmonious.
‘The Pedlar,’ engraved on a proceeding page, is one of Mr. Burr’s comparatively early works, and has never been exhibited. The composition speaks for itself: the itinerant Vendor of small wares is expatiating on the merits of some article he holds up, but the mistress of the cottage is otherwise occupied; while the girl by her side appears to be making an appeal in favour of some object in the man's basket.
Our other engraved illustration, ‘THE TARGET,’ is a still earlier picture, and has also never been exhibited: both this and ‘The Pedlar’ were a few months ago ip the possession of Mr. Cox, of Pall Mall and Cornhill, who permitted us to engrave them. The owner of the wandering shooting-gallery is a capital study, as, pipe in hand, he points the young marksman to the bull’s-eye; yet he need not fear that his bag of nuts will be exhausted, even should the whole group of juvenile rustics who have gathered round the stall as competitors or spectators—and they are all very prettily and picturesquer placed on the canvas—try their skill at the target, which most of them seem very willing to do.
Mr. Burr has this year paid a visit to Holland to study some of the works of the old Dutch master, in whose wake he is follow- ing after amanner of his own. We may safely predict that an artist so painstaking, genuine, and able. has a successful career before him. Before the appearance of Wilkie, our country could boast of no painter worthy of comparing with the old Dutch and Flemish artists, whose domestic scenes and genre subject have made the names of Teniers, Ostade, Netscher, Brauwer, and others, famous. Wilkie’s eat success, however, opened up a wide and popular ﬁeld for British artists; and Mr. Burr takes a good place among his followers, but not imitators, each having an independent manner of his own, which he works out as he considers best. James DAFFORNE.
Dafforne, James. “British Artists: Their Style and Character. No. LXXXVIII. John Burr.” Art-Journal. (1869): 327-39 Hathi Trust Digital Library digitized from a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 7 April 2014.
Last modified 7 April 2014