Scottish National Portrait Gallery 22nd October 2012
by Alexander Nasmyth
Oil on canvas: 38.4 x 32.4
Bequeathed by Colonel William Burns 1872
In 1786 the Edinburgh bookseller William Creech commissioned the young Alexander Nasmyth to paint a portrait of Robert Burns. The portrait has achieved near iconic status as a representation of Scotland’s national bard.
Nasmyth’s portrait invites us to consider likeness, patronage and the relationship between artist and sitter in a professional and social context.
The backdrop, with its trees, fields and ruined building is suggestive of Burns’ country upbringing in Ayrshire. Perhaps this understated landscape is more suggestive of classical beauty than rural poverty? Whist the pose is informal, the clothes are refined. In the head and shoulders portrait we see Burns in a smart bottle green jacket, a waistcoat and lace collar. His lips and nose are well defined. His gently ruddy cheeks suggest health and prosperity. The portrait suggests not so much “ploughman poet” as country gentleman.
Sir Walter Scott, as an impressionable fifteen year old, encountered the poet at the house of Adam Ferguson during the course of Burn’s 1786-1787 visit to Edinburgh. Over 40 years later Scott wrote to his son in law JG Lochart : “(Burns’) features are represented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture, but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive, than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school- ie none of your modern agriculturists, who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye along, I think, indicated the poetical temperament. It was large and of a dark cast, and glowed ( I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time”. Scott was a man celebrated for his extraordinary memory, both visual and verbal. Notwithstanding a lapse of 40 years, we should, I think, treat his recollection with respect. Why might Nasmyth choose to represent the face of Burns in more refined form, rather than that of the sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school?
That William Creech had commissioned the portrait is significant. By 1786, operating from his luckenbooth opposite St Giles, Creech had published a number of notable writers including David Hume, Dugald Stewart and Henry Mackenzie. Creech both represented and projected a literate – and refined -Edinburgh society. Nasmyth’s portrait was to be engraved as a frontispiece for Burns’ Edinburgh edition of poems . How Burns was visually represented to a wider public would have an impact on sales for Creech. For Burns’ Creech’s involvement in an Edinburgh edition of poems would mark his transition from provincial to national poet
Whilst Burns had consciously set out to woo Creech, their relationship was far from easy. Burns wrote an affectionate Lament for the Absence of William Creech between Edinburgh visits, but Creech delayed payment for the Edinburgh edition of poems and Burns was far from happy.
The relationship between subject and painter is an interesting one. Burns sat for the portrait at Nasmyth’s studio at Wardrop Court where he paid frequent visits. Poet and painter were of a similar age. They were freemasons. Professionally, neither were fully established. The two became friends. They took walks together and visited Edinburgh taverns. The painter’s son James Nasmyth describes how his father and Burns tumbled out of a High Street tavern at 3 am, on a beautiful clear night, “the rising sun…beginning to brighten the tavern of St Giles’s Cathedral”. Acting on sheer impulse Burns suggested that they walk to Roslin Castle, some eight miles distant. Nasymth sketched Burns in Roslin Glen. Later they had breakfast at the local inn where a still impulsive Burns, engraved a pewter place with an impromptu verse dedicated to the innkeeper’s wife:
My Blessings on you, sonsie wife!
I ne’er was here before:
You’ve gi’en us walth for horn and knife,
Nae heart could wish for me.
The imaginative hanging in the Age of Improvement room at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery further intensifies Edinburgh’s sense of social homogeny in the latter part of the 18th century. Close to Nasmyth’s portrait of Burns are portraits of Creech, Scott and Adam Ferguson, all of whom played a part in Burns’ 1786 visit to Edinburgh. A feeling of encountering Nasmyth’s portrait in the flesh is yet further enhanced by the knowledge of the proximity of the site of St James Square where Burns stayed during his second, less happy, visit to Edinburgh.
John Gibson Lochart, Life of Scott (1838; republished 1902), Vol.1: 121-122