Three-quarter length portrait of the poet Robert Burns seated, holding a silver-tipped cane oil on canvas, oval 47.5 x 40 cm. (18 11/16 x 15 3/4 in.) in hinged cabinet maker's frame
PROVENANCE: Captain Ord(?), Greenock, afterwards of Park, Ayr (according to old label inside frame) William Ramsay, Mauchline James Porteous, Glasgow Mrs David Octavius Hill Sale; Dowell's, Edinburgh, 30th June 1934 where purchased by DH Peffers Thence by family descent
EXHIBITED: Glasgow, The Royal Glasgow Institute, The Burns Centenary Exhibition, 1896, no. 64. Loaned by William Ramsay.
This work depicts Robert Burns (1759-1796) Scotland's greatest poet and song-writer, as he appeared during his first sojourn in Edinburgh in the winter of 1786-7. He was then aged 27 and still farming with his brother Gilbert at Mossgiel Farm, by Mauchline in his native Ayrshire. The poet was establishing his literary reputation, having published, in July 1786, his first volume of poetry the celebrated Kilmarnock Edition, and was in Edinburgh to arrange his second or Edinburgh Edition, brought out by the publisher William Creech in April 1787.
His patrons at this time included James Cunningham, 14th Earl of Glencairn, Sir James Hunter-Blair, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and Prof Dugald Stewart who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University. By them he was introduced to the leading lights of the cultural and artistic life of the capital, among whom was the painter Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who became a close friend and confidant. For the frontispiece of the Edinburgh Edition, Nasmyth was commissioned by Creech to paint the poet from the life; a famous work now exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The present work was exhibited in Glasgow at the large exhibition of Burns artefacts and memorabilia, held at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts, to commemorate the Centenary of his death in Dumfries in July 1796. The painting, Item 64 in the Exhibition, was described in the catalogue as being by '?Nasmyth' and was loaned to the exhibition by William Ramsay of Ballochmyle Cottage, Mauchline.
The painting depicts Burns sitting in a chair and appears to have been painted from life. His physiognomy, and the clothing worn by the poet, are entirely in keeping with contemporary observations of him: His hair is jet black, his eyes large and very dark, as observed and recorded by, among others, Sir Walter Scott. His lips are slightly parted, described as their habitual position when not speaking by his brother Gilbert Burns.
He wears a dark blue jacket, a white stock, and what are probably the buckskin breeches he habitually wore when in polite society. Of particular interest is his waistcoat. This features alternate horizontal stripes of 'Buff and Blue' which were the colours of the Foxite faction of the Whig Party supported by Burns. These colours were those of the uniform of Gen. George Washington, strongly supported by the Foxite wing of the Whig party during the American War of Independence which ended in 1782.
His right hand, draped nonchalantly over the back of his chair, holds a tasselled cane which is almost certainly the gilt-topped cane which, in a letter of November 1790 to his patron Mrs Frances Dunlop of Dunlop, he describes as 'my gilt headed Wangee rod.' The cane may be inspected in the Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway. Whangee is a hardy evergreen plant related to bamboo from Japan, China and the Himalayas whose woody stems were used to make canes and umbrella handles. The word derives from the Chinese (Mandarin) huáng lí.
We are grateful to Professor David Purdie MDFRCP Edin. FSA Scot for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
A label inside the frame reads: '40 years the property of Captain Ord (?), Greenock, afterwards of Park, Ayr'. Burns had a friend named Thomas Orr, of Park Farm near Kirkoswald. They attended school together and they kept in touch while Orr studied navigation. Orr went to sea in 1785 and was supposed to have drowned on his first voyage.