On the 15th of August, 1771, Walter Scott was born in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Scott achieved popular success as a poet and novelist during his lifetime. He is remembered today as the father of the modern historic novel. He also played an important role in revising the popular view of the Scottish Highlands and its culture, especially through his series of novels known as the Waverley novels.
This oil painting shows Sir Walter Scott standing over the tomb of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The painting depicts Scott’s second visit to Stratford in 1828, though it was probably painted a few years later. Scott recorded in his journal:
We visited the tomb of the mighty wizzard. It is in the bad taste of James Ist’s reign but what a magic does the locality possess. There are stately monuments of forgotten families but when you have seen Shakespeare what care we for the rest? All around is Shakespeare(‘s) exclusive property.
The painting evokes a tranquil moment with one successful writer quietly contemplating another. Scott had studied, and was an admirer of, Shakespeare’s work. He had been presented with a cast of the bust in Holy Trinity Church by the sculptor George Bullock. He wrote to a friend, "Now I have only to arrange a proper shrine for the Bard of Avon since you have fitted him with an altar worthy of himself". He even got Bullock to take a life cast of his own head so that he could compare his physiognomy with Shakespeare’s.
The Trust acquired this painting in 1969 with the help of the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It has been attributed to various artists. An early auction label states that the work is by the Scottish artist David Roberts (1796 – 1864). A Christie’s catalogue from 1968 reattributed it to another Scottish artist, this time David Wilkie (1785-1841). When the Trust bought the painting from Thomas Agnew and Sons Ltd, it had been reattributed once more to Sir William Allan (1782-1850). Allan was close to the Scott circle and had painted a number of pictures based on his knowledge of Scott, his family, and surroundings after the writer’s death. After the painting was acquired by the Trust the then Director, Roger Pringle, put forward Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846) as the artist.
While many famous writers have visited Stratford, this is the only painting in our collection that depicts such an event. Other writers who have signed the visitor book in the Birthplace include Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Scott signed the visitor book at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, as well as etching his name into the glass of the birthroom window, during his first visit to the town in 1821. On this occasion he was travelling with the priest William Lockhart (Scott's biographer) and the poet and translator William Stuart Rose. We would be interested to know of any other paintings that show writers visiting Stratford.