Scots all over the world will be celebrating Burns Night on January 25 with haggis, neeps, tatties and toasting the immortal memory of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard. Somewhere near the festivities will be an image of Burns that has come to personify him.
Alexander Nasmyth's oil portrait of Burns that he did in 1787 has spawned a million more images that have appeared as paintings, statues and murals and have been reproduced as stamps, banknotes, ceramics and all kinds of printed ephemera. It is now well-known across the world. The story behind the painting is an interesting one.
Robert Burns was born into a peasant family in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland on January 25, 1759. Although lacking any formal education, the young Burns grew up to be a gifted and popular storyteller, poet and lyricist.
At a time when Scotland was riven by inequality and ruled by the churches, Burns enthralled listeners as he railed against class discrimination and poverty and proclaimed the dignity and equality of the working man.
One particularly endearing aspect of Burns' work is that his poems and songs were written and spoken in the Scottish dialect, the language of the common people. His popular verses and songs were witty, topical and irreverent, but they also tender and moving. As Burns' reputation grew in Ayrshire, his company was much in demand at local taverns and cottage meetings.
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 all other fools to my title page
There are no images of Burns from his early years. Portraiture was for the moneyed classes. Burns was a humble man from a peasant family with no reason – or money – for a painting to be commissioned.
In 1786, Burns' first book of poetry was published. The Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect was an overnight success. Suddenly the Scottish intelligentsia became interested in The Ploughman Poet and Burns was invited to Edinburgh to meet with the movers and shakers in the literary world and their benefactors.
In the capital, Burns proved something of a novelty. The literati marvelled at how this uneducated man could write tender love songs and poems and also scathing ballads and witty verse attacked the prevailing orthodoxy of church and state and flying a flag for republicanism, all written in the voice of the common people.
After the sell-out success of Burns' first poetry book, Edinburgh publisher William Creech decided to publish a new edition of Burns' works. He thought the book would be improved by an image of the handsome young poet at the front. Creech commissioned Edinburgh portraitist Alexander Nasmyth to render a likeness of Burns as an engraving for the frontispiece of the new publication.
It is interesting that Nasmyth's primary reputation was as a landscape artist. The publisher's choice of the artist may well have been simply that Burns and Nasmyth were of a similar age and had become good friends. They shared an interest in radical politics as well as a love of nature.
Burns was 28 when he sat for his portrait. He wrote to a friend: "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 all other fools to my title page."
Nasmyth was quick in his rendering of the oil painting. He is recorded as being pleased to have captured Burns' likeness convincingly. So much so that he decided to leave the painting in a slightly unfinished state.
In the painting, Burns has a strong handsome face with dark brown eyes, framed by thick collar-length dark brown hair and long sideburns. Amusement plays on his lips. His face is softly lit from the right and he looks to the middle distance slightly to his left. His dress is that of a fashionable Scottish merchant of the day – white silk shirt, gold waistcoat and black long coat with high collar.
Being a landscape artist, Nasmyth couldn't resist using the background to locate Burns within the quiet agricultural pastures of rural Ayrshire. To the right is a tree and to the left a ruined castle set among rolling hills under a stormy sky.
Most of the critics of the day thought the likeness not only captured Burns' physical likeness but also well represented of his inner strength of spirit. The oil painting (38.4cm x 32.4cm) now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and has a steady stream of visitors.
Since 1787 Nasmyth's portrait has graced thousands of Burns Night tables and has appeared in a million forms across the globe, including 400 statues of Robert Burns worldwide.
Little did Burns know when he sat for his first portrait in 1787 that it would become the iconic image by which he would be remembered.
Next time you visit the Burns statue in Auckland Domain, look closely at his face and you will see Nasmyth's hand.
• Scottish-born Dr Cathy Casey is patron of the Auckland Robert Burns Association.