The scheme of the first painting illustrates the main theme of the project: that the nine lives of Robert Burns were closely circumscribed, restricted and confined. His immediate environment was severely curtailed throughout his childhood and growing up in rural Ayrshire. His father was a market gardener-cum-farmer, whose total labour force was the young boy, Burns, and his younger brother, Gilbert. Small wonder Burns escaped as often as he could into books. We see him here immersed in his reading, despite the snores of brother, Gilbert, huddled in the straw bed beside him and the noise of rats scurrying on the rafters just above his bed. The book in his hands might have been his own father’s ‘Manual of Religious Belief’ or Masson’s ‘Collection of English Prose and Verse’ or Fisher’s ‘English Grammar’. It mattered little; he was completely absorbed and lost to the world around him, even to his faithful collie staring up at him devotedly from the foot of the bed.
The only light is from the moon at the window and the candle placed on a pile of books at the table. The candle is not only the main illumination, it is the only source of warmth in the room as we can see from the frozen drips on the window pane and the fact that the boys are in bed with all their clothes on and even with caps on their heads and scarves round their necks.
It was hardly the ideal situation for study or relaxed reading, but the world of the imagination was the one in which the boy, Burns, really lived, for here there were no bounds or discomforts. He soaked up every syllable and as long as the candle lasted so did he. It was in reading he explored not only himself, but the wide world beyond the harsh life offered to him in the fields outside the icy window. The auto-didact he was to become began with a little boy clutching a book in his freezing fingers, and never thinking in any way that he was deprived or underprivileged.