By Beth Caffery Carter
If you’ve visited Liberty Hall and the Orlando Brown House, you may recall the paintings that hang on their walls of these two houses. The Kentucky artists exhibited at Liberty Hall Historic Site include Oliver Frazer, Matthew Harris Jouett, and Paul Sawyier. However, one Kentucky artist represented in the collection stands out with because of his friendship with the Brown Family: Robert Burns Wilson.
Robert Burns Wilson was born on October 30, 1850 in Pennsylvania to Thomas M. Wilson and Elizabeth McLean Wilson. Elizabeth, who could draw and paint, connected with her artistically-minded son.[i] Sadly, Wilson’s parents died when he was a child, so he went to live with his grandparents in West Virginia.[ii] As a teenager, Wilson decided that he wanted to become a painter, and he started to teach himself.
In 1871, Robert Burns Wilson settled in Pittsburgh to focus on art. He became friends with a young artist named John W. Alexander. They shared a studio and a passion for painting. They decided to travel down the Ohio River on a skiff “covered with a Conestoga wagon-top” where they spent their days floating and sketching on their way to Louisville.[iii] Alexander returned to New York after the trip while Wilson stayed in Kentucky, where he made his home for the next 32 years.[iv]
Wilson settled in Louisville, where he completed a crayon portrait of Henry Watterson, editor of the Courier-Journal. Wilson soon received requests for other portraits. In 1875, two Frankfort men, S. I. M. Major and Edward Hensley, convinced Wilson to come to Frankfort there, where work would await the artist. Wilson made his home and studio in the Hanna House on Second and Conway Streets.[v] Robert Burns Wilson was a tall, handsome, and social young man who quickly became friends with many affluent Frankfort families.
One of Wilson’s first friends and patrons in Frankfort was Orlando Brown Jr. Wilson painted watercolor portraits of Orlando’s daughters, Mary Watts Brown and Anne Hord Brown. After spending his first few years in Frankfort creating portraits, Wilson began painting scenes around Frankfort and along the Kentucky River. Many of these paintings have purple and blue tones, which can be seen in some of Wilson’s landscapes at Liberty Hall Historic Site. Wilson’s paintings received attention outside of Frankfort after his work was exhibited at national shows including The World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans.
Locally, Robert Burns Wilson was known as a painter, but he gained international recognition for his poetry. Wilson believed that painting and poetry went hand-in-hand. He could visually illustrate a scene through the use of paints and could convey the same emotions with his words. The Current published his poem “A Wild Violet in November” in 1884 which received a world-wide praise as it was translated into many European publications.[vi] This began Wilson’s career as a nature poet and his work was published in nationally circulating newspapers and magazines for years to come.
Robert Burns Wilson published three volumes of poetry: Life and Love (1887), Chant of a Woodland Spirit (1894), and The Shadows of the Trees (1898). His poetry is generally romantic in the sense that he embraced nature and its relationship to him. His poetry is generally romantic in the sense that he embraced nature and its relationship to humanity. Frankfort also inspired Wilson to write a novel, Until the Day Break, based on the places and people he knew. While Wilson’s prose was praised, his novel was met with mixed reviews with some stating that it was “weird” and might be better in a “waste basket.”[vii]
Robert Burns Wilson was a staple in the Frankfort social scene through the 1880s and 1890s. He went to social events that were also attended by members of the Brown Family, including Senator John Brown’s granddaughter, Mary Mason Scott. The pair became friends, which is documented by the sonnets Wilson would write for Mary Mason Scott each year on her birthday. You can even find some of Wilson’s writings inside one of Mary Mason Scott’s songbooks. Wilson also wrote a poem in honor of another member of the Brown Family -- John Mason Brown, son of Mason Brown, following his death in 1890.[viii]
Wilson received national attention when his poem “Remember the Maine” was printed on the front page of the New York Herald on April 17, 1898. Wilson transcribed a copy of his poem for Mary Mason Scott. She also owned a copy of the sheet music that was published when Wilson’s words were set to music by composer Charles Crozat Converse.
In 1901, Robert Burns Wilson married to Anne Hendrick, daughter of former Kentucky Attorney General William J. Hendrick. The couple and their young daughter left Frankfort for New York City in 1903. While he remained active with his art and poetry, it was hard for him to break through on the New York scene.
On October 29, 1915, Wilson suffered a heart attack. He became ill and was placed in St. John’s Hospital in Brooklyn. Wilson's friend from Frankfort, Rev. Alexander Hensley, visited him. One of Wilson's last wishes was to be returned to Frankfort and buried near Daniel Boone in the Frankfort Cemetery.[ix]
Robert Burns Wilson died on March 31, 1916. Funeral services were performed in New York by Rev. Hensley, who also accompanied Wilson’s remains by train back to Frankfort. A funeral took place in the Frankfort Cemetery chapel. Kentucky’s artist and poet was laid to rest. His grave overlooks the city that he made his adoptive home.
[i] Rutherford, Mildred Lewis, American Authors: A Hand-book of American Literature From Early Colonial to Living Writers (1894): The Franklin Printing and Publishing Co., Atlanta.
[ii] Coleman, Jr., J. Winston, Robert Burns Wilson: Kentucky Painter, Novelist, and Poet (1956): Winburn Press, Lexington.
[iii] “John White Alexander: Portrait-Painter, Decorator, Illustrator.” The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life, XXXV, no. 865 (July 1899): 609-610.
[iv] Cortland Evening Standard, September 24, 1902, 6.
[v] “Poet and Painter,” The Courier-Journal, February 19, 1882, 8.
[vi] Memphis Daily Appeal, July 11, 1884, 4.
[vii] “Brief Notes and Comments,” The Evening Telegram, September 8, 1900, 10.
[viii] Scrap-book: Newspaper Clippings Dealing with John Mason Brown of Louisville, Ky., University of Chicago.
[ix] Typescript of radio talk given from the University of Kentucky radio studios of WHAS by John Wilson Townsend, June 8, 1932, 2005A001 John Wilson Townsend Papers, 1898-1965, Box 15, Folder 3-15, Box 3, Folder 9, Eastern Kentucky University Special Collection and Archives, Richmond, Kentucky.