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An honest, sonsie face: The many portraits of Robert Burns

25 January 2019

This time of year is synonymous with haggis, poetry and the noble face of Rabbie Burns, as people across the globe celebrate the life and works of the Scottish bard. Here are the rare portraits painted during his lifetime, and the artworks they continue to inspire over 200 years later.

UK postage stamp depicting Robert Burns | Photo: StampCollection / Alamy Stock Photo

The best known and most produced image of Robert Burns was painted by the artist Alexander Nasmyth. He painted several portraits where the poet is shown in profile, looking off to his right and is fashionably dressed against a rural landscape, evoking his upbringing in Ayrshire.

The artwork was commissioned by publisher William Creech when Burns first visited Edinburgh in 1786. It was for a new edition of Burns' poems titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

Portraits of the bard created by Nasmyth can be seen in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Musuem and Art Gallery, Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery and London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Other artists would use Nasmyth's portraits of Burns as inspiration, creating their own takes on the classic portrait.

Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), Robert Burns (1759–1796) | Photo credit: Glasgow Museum, Art UK // JB Alexander, Robert Burns (after Alexander Nasmyth) | Photo credit: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Art UK // Unknown artist, Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) (after), Robert Burns (1759–1796) | Photo credit: Atkinson Art Gallery Collection, Art UK

Away from portraits artists also painted works that captured Burns as a poet. Thomas Faed painted him with Highland Mary, the protagonist of Burn's song, Highland Mary, from 1792.

James Nasmyth (using a sketch by his father, Alexander Nasmyth) shows Burns sat writing, in the grounds of Rosslyn Castle and an unknown artist depicted him composing one of his most famous works, The Cotter's Saturday Night.

Thomas Faed (1825/1826-1900), Robert Burns and Highland Mary | Photo credit: Museums Sheffield, Art UK
James Nasmyth (1808-1890), Robert Burns at Rosslyn Castle (painted from a sketch by the artist's father, Alexander Nasmyth) | Photo credit: Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Art UK
Robert Burns composing The Cotter's Saturday Night, c. 1786 | Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More Burns from Art UK

Robert Burns has also been immortalised in statues, with over 60 likenesses of the bard across the globe. This places him third (after Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria) for the most statues dedicated to a non-religious figure.

His likeness, based on the Nasmyth portrait has also appeared on murals, street art, stamps and, in 2017 appeared on the Scottish ten pound note. So we can see his face all year round.

Burns statues in Sydney, Australia; Dumfries, Scotland; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States | Photos: Claudine Klodien / Alamy Stock Photo | RDImages/Epics/Getty Images | bgwalker
A mural of Robert Burns on Ardeer beach in Stevenston, Scotland | Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Mural featuring an image of poet Robert Burns in Argyle Street, Glasgow | Photo: Shine-a-light / Alamy Stock Photo
UK postage stamp depicting Robert Burns | Photo: StampCollection / Alamy Stock Photo
Scottish £10 bank note | Photo: Micha Klootwijk / Alamy Stock Photo

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