A MAJOR public appeal was launched yesterday to save a rediscovered study by the great Renaissance master Michelangelo for the nation.

The drawing of a mourning woman was found at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, last year, and the discovery astounded the art world.

It is thought to have been forgotten after being bought in 1747 by Henry Howard, the fourth Earl of Carlisle, and is one of only three Michelangelo drawings in private hands.

His descendant, Simon Howard, is selling the piece partly because of the prohibitive expense of insuring the study and partly because he believes it should be in a national collection.

However, unless about £7.5m can be raised within the next few months it is feared it could go abroad - and could even break the world record for a Michelangelo study, of £8.1m.

The campaign to keep it in Britain, led by the National Galleries of Scotland, has been boosted with a £500,000 pledge from the National Art Collections Fund.

The fund's chairman, Sir Nicholas Goodison, took the unusual step of going public with the gift in an attempt to prompt other donors.

"A campaign such as this requires a rapid response," he said.

"The gift, one of the largest in our 98-year history, reflects our desire to see this noble and exquisite drawing saved for Scotland."

Scotland is seen as the prospective home for the study, as there are no examples of Michelangelo's work on public show in the north of the country.

But as the work has not been given an export time limit, an overseas collector could step in and snap it up when it goes to auction.

The money raised by the sale would help to meet the massive costs of maintaining Castle Howard - the setting for TV's Brideshead revisited - and its 10,000 acre estate.