What did Robert Burns look like? Burns Birthplace Museum on the many faces of The Bard

By Richard Moss | 18 February 2015

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum takes a look at the various interpretations of Robert Burns' appearance - from his lifetime to the present

a reconstructed head of a man with dark hair, eyebrows and a ribbon in his hair
Forensically reconstructed head of Robert Burns Facial depiction produced by Prof Caroline Wilkinson, Dr Chris Rynn, Caroline Erolin and Janice Aitken from the University of Dundee© With kind permission of Rob Wilson
Most of us think we know what Robert Burns looked like, primarily thanks to the famous Alexander Nasmyth portrait of 1787 which depicted The Bard in all of his youthful splendour. But is this a faithful rendering of the poet? Or is it a fiction, like the derivative and romantic Archibald Skirving portrait - drawn well after Burns died?

Perhaps less well known is the fact that Burns himself believed it was a miniature - painted just a few month before he died by Alexander Reid, an unknown local artist, that offered the best likeness.

The Reid miniature is one of several interpretations of Scotland’s most famous poet going on display at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, who have invited a range of contemporary artists to offer their take on his appearance.

a miniature portrait of a man wit side burns in side profile
Alexander Reid, Miniature portrait of Robert Burns, 1796 Watercolour on ivory Set in original carved gilt-wood frame© Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Contributing artists include Graham Fagen, who has been chosen to represent Scotland in next year’s Venice Biennale together with two of this year’s Scottish Art School graduates: Rosie Dahlstrom and Shannon Laing; each of them bringing their own idiosyncratic take on Burns. 

Among the variety of media, which includes traditional oil paint and bronze, visitors will encounter bards fashioned from Lego and from mass produced plastic headed pins from China.

The one constant, regardless of medium or era, seems to to the sideburns, which remain fulsome and impressive throughout. What the author of A Man's a Man for A' That, Tam o' Shanter and Ae Fond Kiss would have made of it all, can only be imagined.

A life-sized model of Burns’ head, reconstructed by forensic scientists from the University of Dundee in 2013 using Burns’ skull as well as surviving portraits and a silhouette from his lifetime, join the contemporary creations to offer what Museum Director David Hopes describes as a “rare chance to reflect on the personality of Burns through portraiture”.

“Images of the Poet say as much about us as they do about Burns,” he adds. “The Real Face is therefore an opportunity to see Burns and to see ourselves - and our relationship with him - in entirely new ways.”

  • ‘The Real Face of Burns?’ is at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum from Saturday February 21 until Sunday June 14 2015.

a Lego figure with sideburns
The Little Artists, Lego Robert Burns, 2014 Lego Digital print© The Little Artists
a full face pencil portrait of a man with sideburns
Shannon Laing, The (Young) Ploughman Poet, 2014 Graphite on paper.© Shannon Laing
a painting of a man with his top off and left arm raised
Rosie Dahlstrom, Eggs, 2015 Oil on canvas© Rosie Dahlstrom
a panel painting of a man with sideburns in an oval frame
Adrian Wiszniewski, The True Face of Burns, 2015 Mixed media on gesso panels© Adrian Wiszniewski
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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