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This extraordinary carved oak shrine to the romantic versifier was discovered in a house on the south coast of England last summer, but its sale at Romsey Auction Rooms in Hampshire was delayed until last week (January 11) pending research by the Regional Furniture Society. It was discovered that there are quite a few Burns-related, bas-relief carved furnishings dating from the late 19th century, long enough after the short-lived poet's death (in 1796) for the mythologising process to begin.

A fireplace in the Royal Zoological Society, Edinburgh is carved with scenes from his poetry in the same way as this hall piece, while a letter written to the December 1946 issue of Country Life magazine describes the significance of the two canine surmounts to the Scottish sideboard in the author's home, which are probably the same as the two seated creatures on either side of the curtained alcove – an 'upper class' Newfoundland and a 'lower class' Collie by the names of Caesar and Luath, who barked debate in the poem Twa Dogs. According to Andrew McKee, past president of the Burns Federation, the seated figures in the main panel are either Tam O'Shanter and his scolding wife Kate, or perhaps the old couple in the love story John Anderson My Jo.

The former interpretation is more likely as it would accord with the panelled scene above which shows Tam being pursued across a bridge by evil ghosts. To either side of the panel is a chained mail figure believed to be freedom fighter William Wallace and a character wearing a Kilmarnock bonnet. Surmounting the shrine is the man himself, bearing similarities to his portrait bust by Alexander Naysmith.

As for the maker of the shrine, the central brass plaque is engraved W. Barrett. Sculp, although no further information about this man had come to light by the day of the sale. In fact, the differing age of the timbers and the quality of the carving would support the auctioneer's theory that the oak had been sourced from different estates with associations with the poet, by descendants of those who claimed to know him.

The freemason would have doubtless approved of such iconography, though strangely the shrine attracted no acquisitive interest from north of the border, eventually selling to an English dealer resident in France, at £2600 (plus 10 per cent premium).