Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Patie Birnie, the Fiddler of Kinghorn 

William Aikman (1682-1731) 

Patie Birnie, the Fiddler of Kinghorn, William Aikman (1682-1731)
Zoom
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
29 15/16 x 24 13/16 in, 76 x 63 cm.
 
Provenance:
Collection of the Earls of Rothes, at Leslie House, Fife (where recorded in 1839); By descent to Norman Evelyn Leslie, 19th Earl of Rothes; Presumably, by whose executors sold, along with Leslie House and its paintings, to Major Sir Robert Spencer-Nairn in 1919; Thence by descent, until sold at Bonhams Edinburgh, 20th August 2012, lot 14, as ‘Attributed to William Aikman’.
Literature:
The Scottish Musical Museum, James Johnson ed. (Edinburgh, 1839), Volume V, p.461, listing the picture at Leslie House; The Songs of Scotland Prior to Burns, Robert Chambers ed., (Edinburgh & London, 1890), p.143; Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland, Robert Ford ed., (Paisley, 1901), p145.
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This important picture is a rare example of a portrait of a known Scottish musician shown with his instrument. The sitter - identified by engravings and the inscription bottom left - is the celebrated Scottish fiddler, Patie (or Peter) Birnie. The inscription, which identifies Birnie as ‘The Facetious Peter Birnie / Fidler in Kinghorn’, is an appropriate one given the highly unusual depiction of the sitter laughing, for while the term ‘facetious’ is today usually a derogatory one, in the 18th Century it meant simply (as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary states): ‘gay; chearful [sic]; lively; merry; witty.’

By all accounts, Birnie was indeed a famously facetious fiddler. Few biographical details are certainly known, and most of our information comes from Allan Ramsay the elder’s ‘Elegy’, published, presumably shortly after Birnie’s death, in 1721. This amusing account was condensed by the Rev. James Granger in his ‘Biographical History of England’ first published in 1769, though it is hardly flattering, as the English Reverend seems to have misunderstood Ramsay’s gently mocking humour:

Patie Birnie resided at Kinghorn, on the sea coast, about nine miles north of Edinburgh, where he supported himself by his consummate impudence. Not by honest labour, but by intruding upon every person who came to the public house; generally apologizing, at his entrance of the apartment where the travellers were, by saying: that he could not get away from the company he was in sooner, or he should have come on their first sending for him; as he ever pretended that a person had desired him, in their name, to attend. He then fell into the utmost familiarity, grounding his freedom upon his having well ken’d his honour’s father, or nearest relation, and had been very merry with him; and concluded his harangues with the commendation of his relation, by averring what an excellent good fellow he had found him. Having thus prepared the war, next followed his own exploits, which were in ‘showing a very particular comicalness in his looks and gestures; laughing and groaning at the same time. He played, sung, and broke in with some queer tale twice or thrice e’er he got through the tune; and his beard was no small addition to the diversion.’ Johnny Stocks, a low, but very broad fellow, his loving friend, heightened his jests, by dancing to his music, for Birnie was both poet and musician.

Ramsay’ Elegy also relates that Birnie was present at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, where, however, little military prowess was in evidence:

At Bothwell Brig he gade to fight;
But being wise as he was wight,
He thought it shaw’d a saul but slight,
Daftly to stand,
And let gunpowder wrang his sight,
Or fiddle hand:
Right pawkily he left the plain,
Nor o’er his shoulder look’d again, […]

Despite Birnie’s evident fame in Scotland in the 18th Century and later, this portrait’s history was until recently unknown. However, research by Philip Mould & Co. has established the picture’s provenance. In James Johnson’s 1839 publication ‘The Scottish Musical Museum’, the picture is described as being at Leslie House, home of the Earls of Rothes in Fife (not far from Kinghorn). The early inscription on the bottom left of the picture is of the same type as that found on a number of other pictures formerly at Leslie House, including a portrait by Aikman of Colonel the Hon. Charles Leslie (d.1769), second son of John Leslie, 9th Earl of Rothes (d.1722).

The pictures from Leslie House seem to have been dispersed haphazardly. The portrait of the Hon. Charles Leslie by Aikman remained in the Leslie family, and was sold by the executors of the late Hon. John Leslie at Christie’s in London on 16th July 1998, lot 36. Other pictures from Leslie House were sold at Sotheby’s in London on 27th November 2003 (for example, lots 124, 125 and 195) as the property of ‘a Scottish Institution’, understood to be Leslie House when it closed as a Church of Scotland eventide home. These had been given to the Church in 1953 by Sir Robert Spencer-Nairn, who had acquired Leslie House from the 19th Earl of Rothes in 1919 along with much of the contents. The present picture of Patie Birnie, however, has remained in the possession of the Spencer-Nairn family until it was sold recently at Bonhams in Edinburgh.

Until now, the attribution of this portrait to Aikman has been uncertain, thanks in part to the many anonymous engravings after the picture. Research by this gallery, however, has established that the picture is listed in earlier literature as by Aikman. In addition to Johnson’s 1839 publication, Robert Chambers in his 1890 book ‘The Songs of Scotland’ described it as by Aikman, and showing ‘a face mingling cleverness, drollery, roguery, and impudence in harmonious proportions.’ Furthermore, recent conservation has not only revealed that the picture was entirely over-painted in the background, but also an old inscription (probably late 18th Century) at the bottom right hand side of the picture attributing the picture to Aikman. In addition, a number of other members of the Leslie family were painted by Aikman, including the previously mentioned Hon. Charles Leslie, as well as Thomas Hamilton, 6th Earl of Haddington, who was the son of Margaret Leslie, 8th Countess of Rothes.

Perhaps the most compelling link between the sitter and Aikman, however, lies in that artist’s interest in poetry and literature, and his portrait of a wider literary circle including John Gay [Scottish National Portrait Gallery], and Aikman’s fellow members of the Worthy Club, including James Thomson, Sir Gilbert Elliott, and Allan Ramsay the elder [all Scottish National Portrait Gallery], a close friend of Aikman’s. Aikman’s 1722 portrait or Ramsay is very close stylistically to the present portrait, with its silvery flesh tones and directly personal characterisation.

While the exact circumstances of the commission remain, at present, unknown, one clue may be gleamed from Ramsay’s Elegy, which records a scene, supposedly witnessed by John Leslie, Duke of Rothes (d.1681), in which Birnie, refused entry to a feast, flung his fiddle over ‘the yett’, or gate, and thus gained admittance. It is possible that the Leslie family remained aware of Birnie, or even employed him, and commissioned Aikman to take his likeness at about the same time as he was painting other members of the family. Another possibility is that Birnie, well known for his ‘facetious’ exploits in and around Edinburgh, must have been known to Ramsay and Aikman, and both poet and painter decided to record him for posterity. Quite how the high-born Aikman and the rumbustious Birnie got on is a mystery: an intriguing line in Ramsay’s Elegy relates that Birnie would mock those who had travelled to Italy to ‘learn soft music’. Aikman, of course, had travelled to Italy before establishing his practice in Edinburgh in 1711.
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