He is the Scotsman with the most recognisable face in the world, but can we ever be sure what Robert Burns really looked like?
Robert Burns’ face is one of the most famous of Scottish icons. Instantly recognisable, its image is a marketing dream come true for advertisers of whisky, shortbread and haggis or sellers of postcards and teatowels. But, for all celebrities who lived before the advert of photography, we are forced to rely on portraiture for his likeness.
Yet every artist sees his sitter in his own unique way. So can we ever be sure what he really looked like? Henry Raeburn was in Italy at the time of Burns’ visit to Edinburgh in 1787 and so missed the opportunity to paint him. The loss of such a painting from the hand of Scotland’s greatest portrait painter deprived us for ever of a masterpiece, leaving the best known likenesses of Burns in the hands of Alexander Nasmyth (a landscape artist) and John Beugo (an engraver).
“Such was the grip of Nasmyth’s portrait on the public imagination that it became widely accepted that this was what Burns looked like”
Only the rich and famous sat for their portraits and Burns was about to join their prestigious ranks. His meteoric rise to fame demanded it and, for those admirers who had neither met him nor were ever likely to, there was a natural curiosity about his appearance. The publication of ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ was imminent, a portrait for its frontispiece urgent. So Nasmyth was pressed into service and commissioned by Creech, the publisher, to execute it. To paint the ‘ploughman poet’, the man of the moment, would have been a challenge for any artist.
Nasmyth portrait of the Bard.
Nasmyth, though, was diffident, unsure of his own ability in portraiture and of doing justice to such a sitter. He tackled the challenge with trepidation at his lodgings in Wardrop’s Court over a few sittings until he reached a point where he was afraid to go further lest he spoil the end product. The canvas was then handed over to John Beugo to produce a copper-plate engraving. A perfectionist, Beugo insisted on several sittings, touching and retouching the plate. On 24 February 1788 Burns wrote to Ballantine in typical self-deprecating style: ‘I am getting my Phiz done by an eminent Engraver; and if it can be ready in time, I will appear in my book looking, like other fools, to my title page’
His opinion was not shared by Gilbert Burns, who favoured the engraving, saying it showed more character and expression than the painting. Nasmyth’s fears proved unfounded. Such was the grip of his portrait on the public imagination that it became widely accepted that this was what Burns looked like. Burns himself, though, favoured another artist.
In May 1795 he wrote from Dumfries to George Thomson: ‘There is an artist of very considerable merit, just now in this town, who has hit the most remarkable likeness of what I am at this moment, that I think was ever taken of any body.’ Working out of his ‘painting room’ in Dumfries, Alexander Reid (1747 – 1823) had captured the poet’s fancy with his profile miniature, although later that spring the poet changed his opinion, calling it ‘a bagatelle’ and saying the painter had spoilt the likeness. Ill health and the downward spiral of his life in his final year may have tainted his first enthusiasm.
Despite having no pretensions to prettiness, Reid’s miniature captured something of his sitter’s peasant like virility and watchful dark eyes. Fast forward to 1812, by which time Nasmyth’s portrait ruled supreme as the authentic likeness of Burns. That year, though, the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected portrait came to light which challenged this assumption for in it the poet looked strikingly different.
A naïve hated portrait in oils on a wooden panel, it was painted by Peter Taylor, a coach-painter and sign-writer. Legend has it that Taylor met Burns at a dinner-party in December 1786 and that the poet agreed to sit for him the next morning. There were three sittings, the last taking place in May 1787 shortly before Burns left Edinburgh. The existence of the portrait remained unknown until, in 1812, Taylor’s widow showed it to James Hogg to whom its story was recounted. Interestingly it shows him as he was in the days before his celebrity: a gentleman farmer in a broad-brimmed hat. The face is longer and thinner; the nose higher-bridged than in the Nasmyth portrait and lacks the chocolate-box charm designed to appeal to the mass market. It is a rustic portrayal and Burns saw himself as such: ‘I shall certainly make my plain, weatherbeaten, rustic phiz a part of your Box-furniture on Tuesday,’ he wrote to Maria Riddell in November 1793, referring to her box at the Theatre Royal, Dumfries.
Family likeness may offer a clue as to how Burns looked – here a photograph of his daughter, Elizabeth Parks.
Thanks to Nasmyth and to a lesser extent Reid; Burns’ face was now instantly recognisable. ‘My face is sae kenspeckle that the very joiner whom Mrs Burns employed to break up the parcel knew it at once,’ the poet wrote to George Thomson in May 1795, thanking him for the gift of yet another portrait of himself by David Allen. ‘Several people think that Allen’s likeness of me is more striking than Nasemith’s’ he added. Everyone agreed that the most striking feature of his face was his eyes. ‘An eye never before seen in a human head,’ wrote Sir Walter Scott who, in his teens, had had the good fortune to meet him.
“Elizabeth was agreed to most resemble the poet of any of his children with the same striking dark eyes. Incongruously framed in her bonnet, hers is Burns’ face in feminine form.”
Maria Riddell, too, paid tribute to the fascination of ‘those black balls of fire which electrified all on whom they rested.’ Burns’ portraits can never wholly satisfy the curiosity about his appearance. Family likenesses, though, may offer a clue. Two of Burns’ surviving sons had their photographs taken, as did at least one of his daughters (Elizabeth (Betty) Park Burns, his daughter by Dumfries barmaid Ann Park). Though manly and pleasant in appearance the sons lack the dark fire of their father; Elizabeth, though, was generally agreed to most resemble the poet of any of his children, with the same striking dark eyes. Incongruously framed in her bonnet, hers is Burns’ face in feminine form. Despite this, most people, it seems, still view Burns through the eyes of Nasmyth, As for the poet himself: Reid’s miniature still stands as the best example of how he saw himself.
Finally there is the photograph of Elizabeth Park Burns, whose face is probably the nearest we will ever get to what Robert Burns really looked like.
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