The Burns Panels at the RSA

Posted on 05 December 2017

Robert Burns ARSA (1869-1941)           

27 Panels depicting the Spanish Armada off the Coast of Scotland from Crawford’s Tearoom in Hanover St, Edinburgh

oil, gold leaf, incised leather and pigmented varnish on Sundeala board, 1923

Burns was an enigmatic artist and designer. Notable within the Celtic and Arts and Crafts revivals in Scotland, he contributed to Patrick Geddes’ The Evergreen. Elected an Associate of the RSA in 1902 and appointed as the first Head of Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art in 1908, Burns was an influential teacher to Anne Redpath, Eric Robertson, Adam Bruce Thomson and others. He left his post at the college in 1919 and resigned from the Academy in 1920, feeling slighted at not being elected a full Academician. This may reveal a schism in the Academy over the recognition of the status of applied art.

In 1923 Burns received a commission that shaped the rest of his career. The design and decorative arrangement of Crawford’s Tearoom on the corner of Edinburgh’s Princes Street and Hanover Street (now Costa Coffee) allowed him to merge the realms of fine and applied art. In 1922 David Crawford had acquired the premises, with the dream of creating a complex of quality restaurants and tearooms.  In the Hanover Street building Burns’ masterpiece, The Chinese Room, a scheme derived from Oriental art, took shape. He selected, customised and in a few cases, designed the decorative furnishings for the room, including menu cards, labels, cake stands and china.

The most striking element of the room was the frieze depicting the wrecking of ships of the Spanish Armada off the coast of Scotland in 1588. Comprising twenty-seven individual panels, they make nine triptych scenes, gracefully merging Oriental style with Scottish colour and landscape.

Conservation of the panels has been made possible by generous funding from the Pilgrim Trust and the Friends of the RSA and they are displayed here in their entirety at the RSA, for the first time in thirty years.

Deposited with the RSA on “permanent loan” by Sears Holdings plc, 1983, presented to the RSA by Sears’ successor body, Arcadia Group Ltd, 2016


These artworks are available to view in the President’s Room as part of AGES OF WONDER, which runs until 7th January 2018 and thereafter on request.  To make an appointment to view after the 7th January, please call 0131 624 6556.