Portrait gallery pleads for cash to buy £1.6m painting of John Donne

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The National Portrait Gallery has launched a £1.6m fund-raising campaign to save for the nation a striking portrait of the poet and preacher John Donne.

The painting of Donne, who wrote poems of seduction and delivered gripping sermons, has been in the same family, the Ancrams, for four centuries after it was bequeathed to them in Donne's will.

But the current Lord Lothian, the Tory MP Michael Ancram, is being forced to sell to meet liabilities from the estate of his father who died a year ago. The National Portrait Gallery has been given first refusal and five months to raise the cash. James Stourton, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe, which is representing the family, said they wanted it to go into a public collection if they had to sell. "But I know four or five collectors who would die to have it," he added. The portrait of Donne, the author of lines such as "no man is an island" and "for whom the bell tolls", is regarded by many scholars as the most important painting of any English poet. Probably dating from 1595, the artist is not known - as was common for that period. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, said it would be a "catastrophe" if the painting were lost overseas. "It is self-evidently a very, very beautiful painting and Donne is one of the greatest poets writing in the English language. Let's buy it."

John Moses, the Dean of St Paul's where Donne was also dean from 1621 until his death a decade later, said he was an internationally renowned figure. Visiting Americans only ever wanted to know two things - where Diana, Princess of Wales, stood to be married and where the cathedral kept its own effigy of Donne.

This painting now adorns countless copies of Donne's collected works, but was in effect lost for many centuries after the work was wrongly labelled as the medieval poet Duns Scotus. It was only rediscovered in its own right in 1959.

The National Art Collection Fund charity has kick-started the fund-raising effort with a £200,000 grant - a sum equivalent to two-thirds of the Portrait Gallery's entire annual acquisitions budget. David Barrie, the fund's director, said: "This is a painting that absolutely must stay here, but the National Portrait Gallery is going to be hard-pressed to raise the money. It crystallises the problems museums and galleries face. It's an issue for ministers."

The painting, which was probably painted from life, is a self-conscious depiction of a melancholic figure which might have been painted to give to a lover. It was bequeathed to Robert Kerr, Donne's friend and patron, in his will. The poet described it as "that Picture of myne wch is taken in Shaddowes and was made very many yeares before I was of this profession [a minister]".