There are surprisingly few contemporary portraits of Robert Burns (1759–1796) who is said to have been a rather reluctant sitter. This small picture by Alexander Nasmyth - on permanent display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery - is now the best-known portrait of Scotland’s national bard. Reproduced in almost every conceivable form from postage stamps to shortbread tins, it is now familiar across the world. In this blog, we take a closer look at the poet, his portrait and its painter.
Robert Burns was born at Alloway in Ayrshire, the son of a farmer who provided him with an excellent education. On the death of his father in 1784, Burns tried his hand at farming, but met with little success.
While Burns considered emigration, he wrote a number of his finest poems: The Twa Dogs, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and To a Mouse all date from 1785.
He hoped that by publishing his work, in the now famous Kilmarnock Edition of his poems (1786), he would raise the money to establish himself in Jamaica.
But such was the success of the edition that he decided to remain in Scotland and he was lionised by Edinburgh society.
It was while Burns was in Edinburgh that Nasmyth painted this portrait. Introduced to each other by their mutual acquaintance and patron Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Burns and Nasmyth became good friends.
The portrait was commissioned by the publisher William Creech to be engraved for a new edition of Burns’s poems. As Burns noted:
By tradition, Nasmyth’s portrait was painted quickly and left unfinished as the artist was afraid of losing the likeness. While there are few hints of the complexities of Burns’s character, he is depicted as a lively and intelligent young man, set against a landscape background that evokes his Ayrshire roots. Walter Scott, who as a sixteen-year-old had met Burns briefly at an Edinburgh social gathering, later claimed that Nasmyth’s portrait had ‘diminished’ the poet’s features. According to Scott, Burns was ‘strong and robust’ with a certain ‘dignified plainness and simplicity’. Nasmyth’s image is indeed a rather summary portrayal of Scotland’s most famous son, but this modest work has helped to shape our modern perception of Burns and the qualities of democracy, generosity and honesty that we now associate with his personality and his writing.
Burns and Nasmyth became firm friends, sharing a love of nature as well as an interest in radical politics.
On his trips to Edinburgh, Burns was a frequent visitor to Nasmyth’s studio and they often walked together in the surrounding countryside.
In 1828, many years after Burns’s early death, Nasmyth made another portrait of him, this time showing the poet standing against a view of the Auld Brig o’ Doon at Alloway in his native Ayrshire.
This more Romantic image is also in the collection of the Portrait Gallery.