Spot the difference with Robert Burns

Discovery of a second but very different painting showing Robert Burns as Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2 Edinburgh

There can be hardly a Freemason in Scotland, if not the world, that is not familiar with the painting above which resides in Freemasons Hall in Edinburgh. It has sparked much debate over the years including on the floor of The Grand Lodge of Scotland, who appointed a Special Sub-Committee of the Grand Committee to look into the history of the claim that Robert Burns was appointed Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2 Edinburgh.

“The Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, 1st March 1787” was painted in 1846 by artist and Freemason Brother Stewart Watson, 50 years following the death of Burns and is intended to depict the inauguration event of Brother Robert Burns as Poet Laureate within The Chapel of St. John 60 years prior.

It’s commission was proposed in open Lodge and recorded in the minutes of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning at a meeting on 12th November 1845:-

“Br Marshall quoted passages from minutes of the Lodge in reference to the the attendances of Robert Burns in 1787 and laid on the table a motion that Br Watson have access to Sketch the antique and picturesque interior of the Lodge with a view to his painting the “Inauguration of Robert Burns as her Poet Laureate”, the motion to be disposed of at an after meeting. he felt assured that the subject was worth of the artist, the artist of the subject; and the whole would be creditable to the Lodge.”

The passage read by Bro. Marshall would likely have been from the Lodge minutes dated 1st February 1787:-

“The R.W.M. having observed that Brother Burns was at present in the Lodge, who is well known as a great Poetic Writer, and for a late publication of his works, which have been universally commended, and submitted that he should be assumed to be a member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly.”

Brother John Marshall who is believed to have paid for the commission, also produced a book that same year entitled “A Winter with Robert Burns”. This was intended to help boost sales of subsequent engravings of the painting for which he owned the rights, and it details Burns’ visit to Edinburgh, to Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, of the inauguration and gives some biographical insight into some of those present in the scene.

The painting was also announced in the December 1845 issue of Freemason’s Quarterly Review.

What’s interesting is that people commonly use the mismatch of people from different times in the painting as proof of its inaccuracy. However reading the article above it’s clear that this was done for commercial reasons to increase the likely sales of the subsequent engravings for Bro. Marshall.

While there is still much debate around the validity of the title said to have been bestowed upon Bro. Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning (which it is not the purpose of this article to debate) there should be no doubt that Brother Robert Burns was assumed a member of the Lodge by Master Alexander Ferguson of Craigdarroch and the Brethren of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. In modern day terms this essentially means he was made an affiliate member of that Lodge and that is important as we move on to a second painting of the Bard at Lodge Canongate Kilwinning.

The Other Painting

There is another painting by Bro. Watson that is extremely similar to the “inauguration” featuring many of the same characters, including Robert Burns.

This painting is much lesser known, at least in it’s own right, and is often misrepresented as being the “inauguration” painting, or dismissed more simply as a study or preparatory sketch. It was bought by the National Galleries Scotland for the sum of £60 in 1922 probably with the belief that it was some earlier, possibly unfinished version of the painting and to this day they have it listed with the same title as that depicting the inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate.

Recent observations and research by Bro. Patrick J. Givan PM and himself Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, highlight some major differences in the two paintings and suggest that whilst the first painting shows the inauguration of Burns as Poet Laureate, the second is actually the original and depicts the meeting at which Burn’s was assumed a member of the Lodge.

This is particularly interesting, because if we look at the Freemason’s Quarterly Review extract above, it’s the “painting of Poet Burns in the act of being received into membership of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge” that was being completed by Bro. Stewart Watson.

Spot The Difference

Assembled Brethren

The number and positioning of people in the scene differs greatly between the two paintings. The “inauguration” depicts 62 gentlemen in it, including Burns whilst the “membership” painting depicts around 44 and with the omission of several high profile figures including the Grand Master Mason The Hon. Francis Chatteris (Lord Elcho).

Once again looking at the Freemason’s Quarterly Review we can see that several of the key characters included in the “inauguration” painting, such as Lord Elcho, are not listed amongst the dignitaries, quite the exclusion for a Masonic periodical.

Robert Burns’ Apron

The posing of Burns at Fidelity in front of the altar is almost identical, albeit with a few subtle differences in the details. There is however one key difference that many will miss. His apron.

In the “membership” painting Burns is depicted wearing an apron with with light blue trim, the colours of his Mother Lodge and undoubtedly the apron he would have worn when visiting other lodges and would therefore be expected at the meeting on 1st February 1787 when he was affiliated to that Lodge.

In the more famous “inauguration” painting he is depicted wearing a different apron with red trim, that of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. The “inauguration” painting is dated the month following the minute which records Burns being assumed a member of the Lodge, so in theory he is already have been a member and therefore able to wear the apron of that Lodge.

Laurel Wreath

The R.W.M. of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, Alexander Fergusson Esq. of Craigdarroch, and one of the protagonists of the Burns’ song “the Whistle of Worth” can be seen about to place a laurel wreath on the head of Burns in the “inauguration” painting, befitting the occasion. His posing however in the “membership” painting is completely different.

In the Inauguration painting the RWM presents Bro. Robert Burns with a Laurel wreath symbolising his receipt of the office of Poet Laureate.

Masonic Secrets and Symbolism

In the minute of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning dated 12th November 1845, Bro. Marshall is quoted informing Brethren that:-

“The painting of a Mason Lodge was a novelty, but the peculiarity of the event chosen was such, that in its execution the mysteries of the Craft would not in the least be touched upon.”

Perhaps this is why the “membership” of this painting never really came to light.

It’s hard to believe, in fact inconceivable, that Bro. Stewart Watson who was present at this meeting, would then in defiance of the Lodge include the Masonic symbolism contained within the “membership” painting, in particular on the Master’s Dias and the carpet on which Burns is stood. This is probably the most compelling piece of evidence that the “membership” painting was undertaken prior to November 1845.

St. John’s Chapel

Also in the minutes, the Lodge grants Bro. Stewart Watson permission to access to St. John’s Chapel for the purpose of sketching it’s “antique and picturesque interior”. It can be assumed therefore that he did not previously have permission or access for this purpose and that anything completed prior to this date was done so from memory.

Looking at both paintings side by side, there is a clear difference in the level of detail of the Lodge surroundings within St. John’s Chapel. While arguably the “membership” painting appears to have more time spent on it, it would have likely been painting from memory given what we know above and there are areas, particularly surrounding the altar in front of Burns, that are lacking accuracy.

The “inauguration” painting however appears resolve this.

The Likeness and Character Details

Whilst there is no argument that the “inauguration” painting is a highly developed and accomplished piece of art, again looking at the paintings side by side you can see that the level of detail in the characters, particularly their facial features is not the same.

The “membership” painting appears to have had more time spent on this aspect, which could be a result of deadlines imposed on the commissioned “inauguration” piece by Bro. Marshall and the hype being generated around it in publications such as the Freemasonry Quarterly Review.

The “membership” painting is unfinished

It’s hard to believe that a painting of this standard, quality and level of details is unfinished. However it is evident that the “membership” painting is unfinished. The most compelling evidence of this is that Bro. Stewart Watson’s signature does not feature anywhere on the painting.

However if you also look at the lighting, particularly around the altar, it appears much flatter than in other places, and certainly when compared with the “inauguration” painting.

Perhaps the artist was well underway with this piece when focus was shifted to the “inauguration” scene instead due to the potential commercial value of the event.

The Third Painting

Believe it or not there is a third painting that was completed by Bro. Stewart Watson that belongs with this set. This one however, is clearly a preparatory sketch for the “Inauguration” painting.

Preparatory sketch by artist Stewart Watson for his painting depicting the Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate. Drawn on paper with ink and watercolour.

This piece is also held at the National Galleries Scotland and you can see the progression from the “membership” painting where some details have been changed and others added, albeit not quite to the full extent of the finished “inauguration” painting.

The development is clearly seen from the “membership” painting, to the sketch once he has a new brief and access to the Lodge, and then on to the “inauguration”.


It’s clear that the “membership” and “inaugurations” are different paintings, albeit by the same artist and with one derived from the other.

The evidence points towards the “membership” painting being an earlier work, perhaps put to one side when the commercial potential of the “inauguration” painting was realised.