400 years on, Donne is saved for the nation

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The poet John Donne is reputed to have commissioned this painting of himself to woo an unresponsive lover. It is not known whether he succeeded.

But more than 400 years later he has successfully seduced the British public who have contributed nearly £300,000 towards saving the portrait for the nation after an appeal was launched in January.

Over the Bank Holiday weekend, the National Portrait Gallery will be calling for a final £482 in donations to secure the £1.4m needed to buy the work, which has belonged to the family of the Tory MP Michael Ancram since 1631. The appeal is expected to be declared a success by the time the show closes on Monday night.

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said the response had been "outstanding". The smallest donation sent in was £2 and one person, who wants to remain anonymous, gave £100,000. It was the most successful public appeal the gallery has ever run and a triumphant outcome in its 150th anniversary year, Mr Nairne said.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund, the fund of last resort for national treasures, gave a grant of £750,000 and The Art Fund charity, formerly the National Art Collections Fund, gave £200,000.

Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, who had argued for the work to be saved, said: "It's absolutely right, but also wonderful, that this very important picture has been bought by the National Portrait Gallery, where the wide world can enjoy and admire it."

Regarded as one of the most important and charismatic portraits of a British poet ever painted, the painting was produced in about 1595 by an unknown artist.

Donne, then 23, is depicted with a suggestively unlaced collar at a time when he was writing famous love poems such as "To His Mistress Going to Bed" and "The Flea" prior to his becoming the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

A self-consciously melancholic depiction, it was bequeathed to Donne's friend, Robert Kerr, the 1st Marquess of Lothian, in Donne's will. The portrait remained in the family's homes in Scotland but for a long time was thought to be of the medieval poet Duns Scotia. The error was corrected in 1959. But it was eventually put up for sale by Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian, to settle an inheritance tax bill following the death of his father two years ago. The Ancram family executors were thanked by the gallery for agreeing to reduce the gross price of the painting from £2.36m to £2m to facilitate the purchase. Tax concessions meant the gallery had to raise £1.4 million.

But if it had not been able to do so by a deadline of next month, the painting would have been sold by Sotheby's.

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