Nannie’s Dance, 1842
Here is another depiction of Nannie’s Dance. (Nannie is, of course, the “winsome wench” in Robert Burn’s Tam O’Shanter (1792). She is the central figure—”plump and strapping in [her] teens”—wearing a “cutty sark” (short shirt) while “merrily footing it round” with a group of witches in a ruined church.)
The artwork is by J. M. Wright, it is titled “The Witch’s Dance In, Tam-O’Shanter” and it appeared in the Complete Works of Roberts Burns, Illustrated (London, George Virtue, 1842). The engraver is S. Smith.
Although Nannie’s negligee is described by Burns as “considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress” (i.e. to cover her backside) most illustrators have provided her with a “sark” just as long and substantial as those on the “wither’d beldams, auld and droll” that she is dancing with. This is certainly true of the most famous illustrations, those by John Faed (below), which were published in 1855 and frequently reprinted.
Wright’s “The Witch’s Dance” appeared thirteen years before Faed’s. As you can see below Nannie’s “sark” is shorter and thinner than those of her companions, as it should be, and her left arm is free of her sleeve, exposing half of her torso. Both her companions and the viewer are blessed with a sight of Nannie’s left arm, shoulder and breast. How very risqué for 1842!
Faed (below) followed Burn’s description of the group as comprising “Warlocks and witches in a dance.” He depicts ten(?) figures dancing “hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels” in pairs. Most, but not all, of the pairs seem to be one male and one female, but because all of the dancers are not clearly visible, and many are not facing the viewer Nannie is the only female clearly visible. (Of the five other figures who are clearly visible, four are males who are facing the viewer and one is a female who is facing away from the viewer.) The impression given is of Nannie as the sole witch dancing among a group of Warlocks.
Wright (below) also has ten figures, five female and five male; the six figures seen at length are also equally divided: three female and three male. The central, and the best illuminated, figure is Nannie. She is the focus of the dance, the others dance around her, and although all the female figures have their heads covered, Nannie is the only one wearing a witch’s hat. The impression given is of Nannie as the most important witch dancing among a mixed group of witches and warlocks.
Although the Faed composition is better engraved, and Faed may have been the better artist, I prefer Wright’s composition—certainly as far as Nannie and her fellow warlocks and witches are concerned. When it comes to gothic detail it is a closer contest. Both depict “Auld Nick,” but Faed’s devil is a little easier to see. Faed also includes a sarcophagus and skeleton, whereas Wright only has a spirit appearing from above. Faed’s composition is beautifully and convincingly illuminated by candles (look at the shadows they cast), but it is not at all clear how Wright’s scene is illuminated. So, like I say, all credit goes to Faed as an artist, but Wright’s composition is the winner.