A painting of Jessy Lewars, who helped nurse Robert Burns during the final months of his life, is to go on exhibition at the recently refurbished gallery at the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries. The display is timed to commemorate the death of Scotland’s national poet on 21 July 1796 at his home in Dumfries and will be on display from Saturday 13 July.
On loan from East Ayrshire Leisure/East Ayrshire Council, the painting is by John Irvine and probably dates to the 1820s or 1830s. There was considerable damage around the eyes and mouth so the painting was conserved especially for the exhibition. The conservator, Brian McLaughlin, had to base his work on an etching by Henry Robinson (1796 – 1871) which was based on the original painting.
Born in 1778, Jessy Lewars was just 11 years old when her father died. Jessy went to live with her brother in a house opposite the home of Robert Burns and his family in Mill Vennel, now Burns Street. Jessy became friendly with Robert and his wife Jean and she helped nurse Burns during the last six months of his life. The poet enjoyed her singing and composed several poems for her. When Robert Burns died Jean Armour was left a widow and Jessy stayed to help her look after her four young sons. Jessy married in June 1799 and the couple had five sons and two daughters. She died in 1855 and was buried in St Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries, not far from Burns’ own grave.
The portrait of Jessy Lewars is part of the 19th century collector James McKie’s archive. McKie had an interest in Burns from an early age and systematically acquired books and other items associated with the poet. Ultimately his collection was so large a wing had to be added to his home in order to house it! The collection is now held by The Dick Institute in Kilmarnock.
Councillor Andy Ferguson, Chair of Communities Committee, said;
“I am delighted that it has been possible to bring this important work to Dumfries and the Robert Burns Centre. Following the recent refurbishment of the exhibition gallery at the Centre this painting is the first in a programme of loans from the distributed Burns Scotland collection, held by museums across Scotland and Recognised as being of national significance by the Scottish Government.”
Councillor John Martin, Vice-Chair of Communities Committee, said;
“Jean Armour gave birth to her last child, Maxwell Burns, on the day of her husband’s funeral. We can only imagine how valuable Jessy Lewers friendship and support was in looking after her young family in months following her husband’s death. The story of Jean and Jessy is a reminder of how neighbourly kindness can make a difference to young and old.”
The exhibition opens on Saturday 13 July and admission is free. The Robert Burns Centre is open 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 5pm Sunday.