An intriguing early portrait of Robert Burns, Scotland's greatest poet and song-writer, is to be offered for auction in Part I of Bonhams Annual Scottish Sale on August 20th in Edinburgh. It is conservatively estimated at £5,000-7,000.
The portrait dates from the winter of 1786-7, during the writer's first stay in Edinburgh. Although the 27 year old Burns was still farming with his brother Gilbert in his native Ayrshire he was also establishing a literary reputation, having published, in July 1786, his first volume of poetry the celebrated Kilmarnock Edition. He had gone to Edinburgh to arrange the second or Edinburgh Edition, brought out by the publisher William Creech in April 1787.
Burns was introduced by his patrons who included the Earl of Glencairn and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to the leading lights of the cultural and artistic life of the capital. Among these was the painter Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who became a close friend and confidant and painted the poet from life for the frontispiece of the Edinburgh Edition. This famous work is now exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The painting to be auctioned is almost certainly by one of Nasmyth's children, several of whom were artists, and depicts Burns sitting in a chair. It, too, appears to have been painted from life. His facial features and clothing are entirely in keeping with contemporary observations of him. His hair is jet black, his eyes large and very dark, as recorded by, among others, Sir Walter Scott. His lips are slightly parted, described as their habitual position when not speaking by his brother Gilbert.
Bonhams Head of Pictures in Scotland, Chris Brickley, said," This is one of the earliest portraits we have of Burns. It was painted while he was tasting the first fruits of success as a poet and was almost certainly derived from a life study which gives the likeness an appealing freshness and immediacy."