Long-lost Robert Burns portrait on market for £2m

The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, which was discovered in a provincial auction house. Picture: Complimentary
The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, which was discovered in a provincial auction house. Picture: Complimentary
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A LONG-lost painting of Robert Burns has been discovered south of the Border, and is on sale for £2 million.

The late 18th-century portrait, by one of Scotland’s leading painters, Alexander Nasmyth, turned up at a provincial auction in England.

The anonymous buyer has had the work examined by a Cambridge academic who is convinced the portrait is a genuine Nasmyth.

The artist painted a portrait of Burns in 1787 after meeting the poet. The newly-discovered portrait is believed to be a copy, made by Nasmyth himself, in the early 19th century.

The buyer has refused to disclose how much he paid for the picture but is almost certain to make a large profit on the sale.

It is thought that a private Scottish collector or major gallery are among the most likely customers.

The painting shows the poet in the foreground with trees and a town in the background.

Other versions of the portrait hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The owner said: “Sometimes auctions just miss things and in this case, it seems they did not know everything about the painting and how important it was. I saw it and thought it was very interesting. I have had the experience of finding it and the excitement now. Personally, I would like to see it in a good Scottish home now.”

The painting has been authenticated by Dr David Mackie, a leading scholar of Scottish paintings.

Dr Mackie of Cambridge University, said: “I have known about this for about two years, and although it is not a Raeburn, I believe it is a Nasmyth. I make that judgement purely based on its style. It is in very good condition and it is a really charming little picture.”

The painting has also been investigated by writer Jerry Brannigan. Mr Brannigan, who is set to publish a book on Burns next year, said the owner is calling the portrait The Shaw Burns, as they believe it was once owned by Sir James Shaw, the lord mayor of London from 1805.

After Burns’ death in 1796, Sir James became a benefactor to the Burns family, helping them into work and financially aiding the poet’s widow, Jean Armour.

He said: “Everything fits, and it is a fascinating story. Shaw went out of his way to help the Burns family and it would have been natural for him to own this painting. It would be reasonable to date the painting as being in the possession of Shaw between 1800 and 1810, during his period as lord mayor of London and chamberlain.

“The Shaw Burns is therefore very likely to be the first copy Nasmyth made of the original.”

Imogen Gibbon, senior curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: “This is a very interesting discovery. I would say often people approach museums and galleries with what they think is a new portrait of Burns, but often they date from the 20th or late 19th century, but this is appears to be an ­exception.”