The most celebrated of Scottish poets, Burns was born in Ayrshire on 25 January 1759, the eldest of seven children. His father was a struggling tennant farmer and poverty limited his formal education.
Burns was influenced in his writings by the works of Robert Fergusson and Scottish folk tradition. He realised the possibility of the Scottish regional dialects and by 1786 he had written many of his best known poems including, The Cotter's Saturday Night, Hallowe'en, To a Mountain Daisy and To a Mouse. His first book of poetry Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published by subscription in 1786 and a further 3000 copy edition in 1787. His later work consisted mainly of songs, both original compositions and adaptations of traditional Scottish ballads. He contributed 200 songs to The Scots Musical Museum, 6 vols., 1787-1803 and beginning in 1792 Burns wrote 100 songs and humourous verses for A select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, compiled by George Thomson.
Strenuous farm labour and poor living conditions in his youth resulted in Burns contracting rheumatic heart disease from which he eventually died on 21 July 1796.
The present drawing is similar in pose to the famous portrait of Burns by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. However the catalogue entry in the 1876 sale suggests that Burns was a friend of Flaxman, but it has not been possible to establish if they ever met one another.