Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnet, John
BURNET, JOHN (1784–1868), painter and engraver, was born at Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, on 20 March 1784, and was the son of George and Anne Burnet. His father was surveyor-general of excise for Scotland. After receiving instruction from Mr. Leeshman, the master of Sir Walter Scott, he was apprenticed to Robert Scott [q. v.], landscape-engraver, and father of two well-known artists, the late David Scott, and William Bell Scott, still (1886) living. He at the same time studied painting at the Trustees' Academy, where he was the fellow-pupil of David Wilkie and William (afterwards Sir William) Allan, under John Graham. He served his full apprenticeship (seven years) to Scott, and worked early and late, but his double study of painting and engraving was thought by himself to have cramped his power in both. In 1806 he sailed to London in a Leith smack, where he arrived with only a few shillings in his pocket, and an impression from one of his plates for Cook's ‘Novelist.’ There he was warmly received by Wilkie, who had preceded him by a year, and, having already made his mark by ‘The Village Politicians,’ was then engaged on ‘The Blind Fiddler.’ After working for some years at small plates for the ‘Novelist,’ Britton and Brayley's ‘England and Wales,’ Mrs. Inchbald's ‘British Theatre,’ &c., he (in 1810) undertook his first large plate, which was after ‘The Jew's Harp’ by Wilkie, the first picture by that artist which was engraved. In his early small plates he followed the style of James Heath, and in ‘The Jew's Harp’ that of Le Bas. The latter brought him the acquaintance of William Sharp, the celebrated historical engraver, and its success led to the publication of others, the first of which was ‘The Blind Fiddler,’ for which he preferred to adopt the larger style of Cornelius Visscher. In consequence of the disapproval of Wilkie and Sir George Beaumont, the plate had to be retouched after the proofs had been struck off, so that there are two sets of proofs to this engraving. The first has, among other differences, the hat of the boy with the bellows in a single line. This plate becoming popular, a companion (‘The Village Politicians’) was proposed, but, owing to a dispute as to terms, it was executed by Raimbach instead of Burnet. Subsequently he engraved after Wilkie ‘The Reading of the Will,’ ‘The Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo,’ ‘The Rabbit on the Wall,’ ‘The Letter of Introduction,’ ‘Sir David Baird discovering the Body of Tippoo Saib,’ and ‘The Village School.’ After the peace of 1813, when the Louvre was stored with masterpieces brought from all parts of Europe, Burnet took the opportunity of visiting Paris, and remained there for five months, copying and studying. Shortly afterwards he engraved several plates for Foster's ‘British Gallery,’ of which ‘The Letter-writer,’ after Metzu, and ‘The Salutation,’ after Rembrandt, are thought the best. He then joined an association of engravers who (with Mr. Sheepshanks's aid) brought out a series of engravings from pictures in the National Gallery. Burnet's plates were all from Rembrandt—the ‘Jew,’ the ‘Nativity,’ and the ‘Crucifixion.’ He also engraved ‘The Battle of Waterloo,’ after Atkinson, and the same subject after Devis, as well as some of his own pictures. Among the latter were ‘The Draught-players,’ ‘Feeding the Young Bird,’ ‘The Escape of the Mouse,’ ‘Christmas Eve,’ ‘The Valentine,’ and ‘The Greenwich Pensioners.’
As a painter Burnet is best known by his largest and most important work, ‘The Greenwich Pensioners,’ which was painted for the Duke of Wellington as a companion to Wilkie's ‘Chelsea Pensioners,’ and was exhibited at the British Institution in 1837 under the title of ‘Greenwich Hospital and Naval Heroes.’ At the Royal Academy he exhibited ‘The Draught-players’ (1808), ‘The Humourous Ballad’ (1818), and ‘A Windy Day’ (1823). To the British Institution he was a more constant contributor. In such genre subjects as those mentioned Burnet showed some humour in the manner of Wilkie, but his most frequent subjects were, like those of his brother James [q. v.], landscapes with cattle. He was a sound and careful painter, but of little originality.
Burnet devoted some time to the improvement of mechanical processes of engraving, with a view to the cheap reproduction of works of art. He produced some engravings of Raphael's cartoons at a low cost, but they had not much success. The Sheepshanks Collection contains two of his paintings, ‘Cows Drinking’ (1817), and ‘The Fishmarket at Hastings.’
In 1836 Burnet gave valuable evidence before the select committee of the commons on arts and manufactures, and as a writer on art he achieved and still maintains a deserved reputation. His thorough knowledge of his profession, both as engraver and painter, and his sound and sober judgment, give his writings a value often wanting to those of more brilliant authors. The following is a list of his most important books: 1. ‘Practical Hints on Composition,’ 1822. 2. ‘Practical Hints on Light and Shade,’ 1826. 3. ‘Practical Hints on Colour,’ 1827. These were published together as ‘A Practical Treatise on Painting,’ in three parts, 1827. 4. ‘An Essay on the Education of the Eye,’ 1837. This was added to and published with the previous three as ‘A Treatise on Painting,’ in four parts. 5. ‘Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds,’ annotated, 1844. 6. ‘Letters on Landscape-painting in Oil,’ 1848. 7. ‘Practical Essays on various branches of the Fine Arts, and an Enquiry into the Practice and Principles of the late Sir David Wilkie, R.A.,’ 1848. 8. ‘Rembrandt and his Works,’ 1849. 9. ‘Hints on Portrait-painting,’ 1850. 10. ‘Turner and his Works,’ 1852. 11. ‘Progress of a Painter in the Nineteenth Century,’ 1854. Burnet illustrated with etchings most of these works, of which the four parts of the ‘Treatise on Painting’ contain 130. This treatise has passed through numerous editions. Several of his other works have also been republished.
Burnet was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1860, at the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, he received a pension from the civil list and retired to Stoke Newington, where he died at his house in Victoria Road on 29 April 1868, aged 84.[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists, 1878; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers (Graves); Pye's Patronage of British Art; Athenæum, June 1868; Art Journal, 1850, 1868.]