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Material from the collection of artist Elizabeth Joy Steele
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John Kelso Hunter (1802 - 1873) was born in Dankieth, Ayrshire and was a shoemaker before teaching himself painting. He became a moderately successful portrait painter and his self-portrait as a cobbler was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1847. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Scottish Academy from 1849 to 1872.
He published . Autobiography: Retrospective of an Artist's Life in 1868.
This is an extract from the final chapter which gives some account of his times in Kilbirnie.
The Kind People of Kilbirnie
Some fifty-one years back [possibly in 1817 when he was 15] I was at Kilbirnie along with my master selling shoes at Brinansday Fair.
It was the first time I had been in the place. We started from Dundonald at three o'clock in the morning, arriving at Kilbirnie before breakfast time. I had heard often of the kind nature of the inhabitants of that district. It was said that in the village every one kept open house. Curds and cream, with mashlum scone, oatmeal cake and cheese; and strangers were welcome to enter and eat any hour of the day. Although we had breakfast when we started, and a piece in our pouch, still the early travel made us to have a sharp appetite. After we passed Dalry, my master began to talk of James Kirkwood's people living by the wayside. They were very kind people, and he hoped that they would give us our breakfast. When we entered Mr Kirkwood's house, the servants were just about to begin their breakfast, a jolly dish of parritch being the first course. We were invited to join them. Whether it was that it was parritch or mock modesty, I know not, but my master took the door, talking as fast as he could, "No use for that, no use for that, ower muckle kindness." I looked at him as he went out of the door, and as I felt no qualms of conscience, I said to Mrs Kirkwood that I would take my breakfast. A spoon was handed me, and I gave evidence that I knew its use.
As I left the house, Mrs Kirkwood said that I would stand a sight o' the fair better now, and that I had mair sense than my master, who by the roadside awaited my coming, lamenting he had not done as I had. The secret came out that, had it been tea he would have accepted.
We went on to the fair, which was held at the kirk, the shoe stands being erected in the kirkyard.
The inhabitants objected to this procedure, and invited the shoemakers to come up to the village.
However, they were mostly of the use and wont school, and refused to go. Some of them indeed lined the road-side out the Dalry road, while a few went up to the village, among whom was our stand. I had made the survey of the village many times, and in every house I saw the table standing on the floor spread out as history had said. I thought I would make one grand effort at proof. I walked into a house, drew in a chair to the table, and was looking out as to how I would proceed. It was the house of Cork Allan, shoemaker. I was interrogated as to where I came from, while Jean filled a dish with curds out of the large dish, put cream on them, and bade me eat, and if I could take more after the first service was done, I would get them. I mentioned my master being with me; I was to send him in also, which I did. Further on in the day, I made a call in another house, and was received in the same manner. So I concluded that the people were what report had named them, the kindest in Ayrshire; although the true meaning of the free table was, that there were few residents in town but had friends from the country, and it was one setting out of a table for all comers, and the same welcome.
When I removed to Glasgow, a Mr Inglis lived in the same land with me. He had seen much of the world, was kindly, conversable, and wished every person educated. He did his part to ignite a taste for reading in every person he came in contact with. He had an only daughter. He gave her an excellent education. She had called several times with her father's shoes to mend, and we were on terms of intimacy. They flitted from our corner, and after a time report reached us that Bella Inglis was married.
She had not forgot her auld neighbour the cobbler, for after some time I was sent for by her husband, who stated that it was his wife's desire that I should be employed to paint his mother's likeness. I was despatched to Kilbirnie, to go to Dennyholm, the house of William Knox, and paint the portrait of his mother, who was also the mother of my employer, Mr John Knox, manufacturer, Brunswick Street, Glasgow. I brought home the portrait on Saturday night, and went back to execute new orders. I was eight weeks in Dennyholm and five weeks in other houses, making a quarter of a year in that district. This was the first year of the potato blight, 1846. I had not been in Kilbirnie for twenty eight years till I went on this mission. I had queer reflections as I passed the auld kirk, where I had first beheld the horse fair and where Burns bought the "Blastie," and on entering the village I looked for the house of the cork where I had fed on curds and cream thirty years before. I wondered if all the kind-hearted folk wad be dead, or if the auld use and wont would remain. When I reached Dennyholm it was one o'clock, the dinner was ready, and the remark being made that I was just in time, left no doubt but the good old fashion was still existing. Kilbirnie has had a home feeling to me ever since.
I had painted the portrait of Mr Orr, the father of the present minister. I had known the latter when he was a boy in Kilmarnock with Hugh Craig. In the manse I met with Mr Stewart, who was helper in Largs. He invited me across the moor and gave me a month's home with him, and through that start I was other six months in Largs.
Some years after my first visit to Kilbirnie as an artist, I again went thither to paint some local landscapes for Mr John Knox, and among his friends I received commissions for nineteen portraits before I left, which proved that the kind people of Kilbirnie were not yet all dead. My son John Kelso Hunter died at the age of thirty-three. When he was a boy he determined to lift me off the seat, and he did it, and kept me off it. Often when I would have lost heart he cheered me up. He fell into bad health. His wife dying shortly after him, three sons were left to the charge of their grandmother by the mother's side and myself. Mrs John Knox has kept the whole three children in clothes for more than five years, and John Knox was one of a few friends who said, "Never allow yourself to be in need; just come to me." At Kilbirnie, Mr James Maekie has sat to me three times for his portrait.
He said that he would sit every seventh year as long as we were living. I would have been down this last season, but being unable to go, I only write about it. Time is up for the fourth portrait. It is beautiful to see the changes of the same man brought face to face.