In joyful, playful pastiche, these paintings rework a well-known portrait of the young Burns.
Before considering ‘spot-the-difference’, there is no denying a ‘spot-the-similarity’: the recurring motif of Alexander Nasmyth's famous portrait of Burns. Dating from 1787, it is now held by National Galleries of Scotland. The figurative rendering and composition of the referenced Nasmyth painting remain largely unaltered.
Burns remains recognisable even though he is presented in a range of unrealistic hues. The tampering of the subject matter is the occasional playful insertion of an object or an alteration of the background. The exception being the image where Burns is painted with a birthmark, which may be viewed in this context as a visual pointer to Burns’ uniqueness rather than a defacement. It has been suggested that the Nasmyth portrait is not unduly idealised and is perhaps one of the more accurate renderings of Burns.
Burns’ face serves as an overriding motif. For contemporary viewers, its repetition in multiple hues recalls Warhol’s iconic screen prints of cultural and celebrity icons. It is the retention of the eighteenth-century styling in these works that make a like-to-like comparison with Warhol’s screenprints awkward. These paintings may suggest that Burns, like Marilyn Monroe or the Queen, has become a recognisable figure, but unlike Warhol’s mid-twentieth century subjects, he belongs in a different era, a landscape of proto-Romanticism.
Superimposed on this landscape are the playful insertions of objects. Peeking out above Burns’ shoulders we spot a mini Burns, a grouse, figurines from Young’s beer and McEwan Export ale, even a football stadium. Scottie dogs and greyhounds stand atop his head. In one he wears a National Party yellow rosette and in another is ringed by the EU’s circle of stars. The two large portraits of the series present Burns with a shortcake biscuit halo and a Scottie dog crown. ‘During this period Allen Ramsay’s art playfully inter-mixed iconic Scottish imagery with non-Scottish and at times exotic symbolism,’ explains Bruce Morgan, Museums Officer for East Ayrshire Arts & Museums.
Spot-the-insertion becomes a game for the viewer, as does the attempt to link them to Burns in some narrative of meaning. Burns, a figure of Scottish cultural identity, is as recognisable as Scottie dogs, shortcake biscuits and the grouse. Yet, he overshadows all of them. In his quiet, slightly old-fashioned sitting, he is imbued with a more deeply entrenched and enduring cultural reverence than the manikins of contemporary popular culture or even the ribbons of politics.
Even the Dick Institute could not resist a turn towards the visual games. ‘When first exhibited, the work was presented as a quiz for the public,’ recounts Morgan. ‘One image was secretly designated as the true image by the artist. Whoever guessed correctly won a copy of a single version Burns portrait based on one of the multiples.’
A further layer of humour lies in the artist’s name. Allen Ramsay, a contemporary artist originally from Kilmarnock and worked in the west of Scotland in the mid-1990s. In a strange coincidence, Robert Burns, was influenced by another Allan Ramsay (1686–1758), a wig-maker turned poet and bookseller whose contributions to Scottish literature have been lauded as innovative and groundbreaking. To add further to the in-joke, one of his sons, also named Allan Ramsay (1713–1784), trained as a painter and became the renowned portraitist.
A copy of Ramsay junior’s self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery may be viewed on Art UK. So while the artist’s name is authentic, Morgan agrees, ‘there is some irony considering the literary influence of Allan Ramsay senior on Burns and the profession of Allan Ramsay junior.’
This quirky set of Robert Burns portraits were commissioned directly for the Dick Institute in East Ayshire for their 1996 exhibition ‘Blowing up the Bard,’ to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Burns’ death. The painting is in store at the moment, but may be viewed if arranged by appointment with the Dick Institute.
With thanks to Bruce Morgan, Museums Officer, East Ayrshire Council who provided additional information for this article.
Annwen Bates, Art UK Development and Communications Officer