Highland Mary, by Benjamin Spence
Highland Mary

Highland Mary

Benjamin Spence (c.1822-1866)

1854

Marble

The Palm House, Sefton Park, Liverpool.

This is one of Spence's earliest and best-known sculptures, first carved in about 1852 and repeated several times. Like a number of his other figures, it was inspired by a literary work, in this case Robert Burns's poem of the same title. "Highland Mary" was Mary Campbell, a maidservant whom Burns had loved, and who died young. Part of the inscription on the pedestal is from the poem, and runs: "For dear to me as light and life / Was my sweet Highland Mary."

Benedict Read observes that such subjects were "less ideal" than those inspired by classical literature (206). There are certainly realistic details here which would not be found in a faithful representation of classical times — the fringed shawl, and the book (probably the copy of the Bible which Burns had given the girl). But, with its "charming blend of fact, poetry and romantic legend" (Cavanagh 207), the work was bound to appeal. Amongst the other versions is one commissioned by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria's birthday in 1854, and now in the Royal Collection (see Cavanagh 206).

Photograph and text Jacqueline Banerjee, 2009.

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