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Oil painting - Tam O'Shanter
  • Tam O'Shanter
    Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834
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Tam O'Shanter

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    late 18th century-early 19th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Physical description

Oil on canvas illustrating a scene from Robert Burns' poem Alloway Kirk; or Tam O'Shanter. Tam, on his grey mare Maggie, sets off home at night from an inn; on his way he passes a church (Alloway Kirk) near to which a witches' sabbath is taking place. The witches chase Tam away from the scene, trying to catch hold of the horse's tail, but to no avail.

Place of Origin

Britain (painted)


late 18th century-early 19th century (painted)


Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 14.5 in estimate, Width: 12.5 in estimate

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Extract from Parkinson, Ronald, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860. Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1990. p.xviii.

John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) was the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He entered the family business, but his early enthusiasms were for gardening and the collecting of Dutch and Flemish prints. He retired from business at the age of 40, by which time he had begun collecting predominantly in the field of modern British art. He told Richard Redgrave RA, then a curator in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) of his intention to give his collection to the nation. The gallery built to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site, and all concerned saw the Sheepshanks Gift as forming the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art. Sheepshanks commissioned works from contemporary artists, bought from the annual RA summer exhibitions, but also bought paintings by artists working before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. The Sheepshanks Gift is the bedrock of the V&A's collection of British oil paintings, and served to encourage many other collectors to make donations and bequests.

Historical significance: Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) was a highly prolific painter, book illustrator and designer. After his father's death in 1770 he began his working life apprenticed to a Huguenot silk weaver. At the completion of his apprenticeship in 1777 he entered the Royal Academy Schools, and there struck up life-long friendships with the sculptor John Flaxman and with William Blake. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1778 until his death in 1834, and from 1778 also began to produce illustrations for various publishers and magazines such as the Ladies' Magazine. He sometimes exhibited the original designs for such illustrations at the Royal Academy exhibitions. In his day he was highly respected as a history painter in oil, but the V&A collections of drawings and watercolours reflect his reputation during the 19th century predominantly as an illustrator, as well as a designer of a multitude of objects such as silver salvers to funerary monuments. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Stothard took 'advantage of the opportunities afforded by publishing and the industrial arts, while maintaining a reputation in the more respectable reaches of high art'. For example Stothard exhibited works on a grander scale than was his norm for Bowyer's 'Historic Gallery' (1790-1806). But many of the oils now in the V&A are on a modest scale and are perhaps designs for printed illustrations, rather than 'finished' history paintings. Stothard played a respected part in the art world of his day, and from 1812 until his death at the age of seventy-nine he held the post of librarian of the Royal Academy.

This painting was possibly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1816 (no.33). It illustrates a scene from Robert Burns' poem Aloway Kirk; or Tam O'Shanter. Tam, on his grey mare Maggie, sets off home at night from an inn; on his way he passes a church (Allway Kirk) near to which a witches' sabbath is taking place, presided over by auld Nick, and at which a pretty young novice, Nannie, is being initiated. Tam, well-warmed by his liquor, watches their dancing with increasing delight, especially enjoying the sight of Nannie in what he calls her "cutty sark" (an old Scottish name for a short petticoat); in his excitement he cries out "Weel done 'cutty sark!". At this point the witches, led by Nannie, give chase. The scene shown by Stothard is the point at which Nannie catches hold of Meg's or Maggie's tail, which comes away in her hand - and so Tam is saved. This apparently is the origin of the name of the famous ship, the Cutty Sark, which was chosen by the ship's captain, Jock Willis.

Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane of the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And few at Tam wi' furious mettle -
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin caught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump

The composition is based on the print by Bailliu after Rubens' Rape of Hippodamia, which reverses the design of the original (see for example British Museum, "Search the collection" online database, print by Pieter de Bailliu after Rubens, published by Cornelis Galle I, registration number 1917,1208.479). Anna Eliza Bray [Mrs Bray], in Life of Thomas Stothard, R.A., 1851 (p.236) refers to a Tam O'Shanter by Stothard exhibited at the British Institution in 1841, and illustrating the line, "And Wow! Tam saw an unco' sight"; this is not to be identified with FA 198.

A.C. Coxhead in Thomas Stothard, R.A., an illustrated monograph, 1906 (p.114) mentions illustrations to Tam O'Shanter engraved by Cromek, in an edition of Burns' Poems published by Cadell in 1814. This edition, for which R. H. Cromek wrote the preface, is in fact illustrated with woodcuts by Thomas Bewick. Also, with regard to Coxhead (p.115), no engraving after a Tam O'Shanter by Stothard is to be found illustrating the Songs, chiefly in the Scottish dialect published by John Sharpe, 1824.

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'Tam O'Shanter' by Thomas Stothard. Great Britain, ca. late 18th, early 19th century.


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Witches; Legend; Horses




Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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