Sir Henry Raeburn, the renowned Edinburgh artist noted for his portraits of Sir Walter Scott and other notables, died on the 8th of July, 1823.
Despite being less well known than he should have been outside Scotland during his own lifetime, Sir Henry Raeburn is now recognised as a world class portrait painter. He was certainly the leading Scottish portrait painter during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. He worked almost exclusively as a portraitist and the demand for his work was sufficient to sustain a career wholly in Scotland. Alongside Sir David Wilkie, Raeburn is considered the founder of the 'Scottish School' of painting.
The painting for which he is latterly best known is one that itself was almost unknown until purchased by the National Gallery of Scotland. It is another painting with a long name; his portrait of ‘The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’, which most folks would recognise as ‘The Skating Minister’. It is one of Scotland's best known paintings and a kind of Scottish cultural icon.
However, a new book, 'Context, Reception and Reputation' (Edinburgh University Press, January, 2013), by Dr Stephen Lloyd, a past Senior Curator for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which has contributions from leading academics and art historians, strongly suggests that the painting was not by Raeburn. Lloyd points to X-ray evidence, which reveals that the painting lacks the white lead paint Raeburn typically used for his faces and that, therefore, the work is “utterly alien” to his technique. Lloyd, supported by Pierre Rosenburg, one of the foremost authorities on French painting and a former director of the Louvre, is convinced the work is by French emigre artist, Henri-Pierre Danloux.
Raeburn painted many of the most prominent Scots of his day, including Sir Walter Scott and his work did much to define Scottish society in a period of enlightenment and intellectual distinction. His approach was often to paint directly on the canvas without preliminary drawings and he also experimented with lighting effects. Maybe he experimented with white lead free paint once or twice.
Henry Raeburn was born in Stockbridge, which is now in Edinburgh, on the 4th of March, 1756. He was orphaned at an early age and brought up under the general supervision of his elder brother William. He went on to be educated at Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh, now George Heriot's School. At the age of fifteen, he left school to begin an apprenticeship under James Gilliland, an Edinburgh goldsmith and jeweller. Raeburn demonstrated considerable skill painting decoration on ivory insets in jewellery and from that inauspicious beginning it was only a short step to the production of portrait miniatures, which were fashionable at the time. Henry’s first efforts were of his friends and using water colours, before he moved on to the use of oils.
Raeburn was almost entirely self-taught, but he showed considerable talent. Via his employer, that talent came to the attention of David Martin, who was then Edinburgh's leading portrait painter and who, for a period during 1775, encouraged Raeburn's work and helped him by lending him portraits to copy. With Martin’s guidance, Raeburn began to develop his personal style and progressed from painting miniatures to full portraiture. A portrait of George Chalmers, painted in 1776, is Raeburn’s earliest known portrait, and its faulty drawing and incorrect perspective suggest his lack of formal training. However, within a fairly short period of time, Raeburn was earning a good living as a portrait artist.
In 1778, he married Anne Leslie, the widow of John Leslie, 11th Earl of Rothes, who was twelve years his senior and a mother of three. It is said that he married her within a month of meeting her after being commissioned to paint her portrait. Whatever the truth, his wife was wealthy and having married into financial security, he was able to devote his time entirely to improving his artistic skill and concentrating on his career as an artist. Some years later, in 1784, he travelled to London. Either he was on his way to a tour of Italy, to gain a better understanding of the history and breadth of art, or he was influenced so to do by the English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom he met in London. Reynolds’ works were already familiar to him and he undoubtedly exerted some influence. It appears Raeburn was convinced to study in Italy on Reynold’s advice and that Sir Joshua also gave him letters of introduction to many eminent people in the Italian art scene. He spent his time in Rome, between 1785 and 1786, developing his technique.
Raeburn and his wife returned to Edinburgh in 1786/7, where he set up a studio in George Street. He developed from bust-sized figures to full length portraits and his reputation spread. In marked contrast to many of his Scottish contemporaries, who perhaps felt they had to move south to develop successful careers, Raeburn spent most all of his life in Edinburgh, apart from his educational Italian interlude and the occasional trip to London. So, although he was never as well known outside Scotland as his skill deserved, he became hugely influential amongst his contemporaries. In 1798, he moved into a studio at 32 York Place, in the centre of Edinburgh, where the high windows that he installed to give him as much daylight as possible are there to this day.
Raeburn spent the next thirty years painting a variety of prominent and influential Scots men and women. By about 1790, he had completed the portrait of his wife and the double portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik in which he experimented with unusual lighting from behind those sitters’ heads. That was the first of his paintings to be exhibited in London, where it was shown at Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, in 1792. The background is the estate at Penicuik and the landscape that inspired Ramsay's ‘The Gentle Shepherd’. All told, Raeburn painted over 700 portraits of wealthy and not so wealthy patrons, including four portraits of Sir Walter Scott. Amongst his famous sitters were philosophers Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid and David Hume, the geologist James Hutton and his advocate, the mathematician John Playfair, fiddler Neil Gow and many others. He also painted two Highland chieftains, ‘MacDonell of Glengarry’ and ‘The McNab’, both of which embody the romantic ideals of his time, no doubt influenced by Scott.
Raeburn was elected president of the Society of Artists in Edinburgh, in 1812, and in 1815, the same year as the Battle of Waterloo, he became a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy and of the Royal Academy in London. He was knighted at Hopetoun House by King George IV during his visit to Scotland in 1822 and, shortly before his death, was appointed His Majesty's Limner for Scotland. Sir Henry Raeburn died intestate at his home of St Bernards in Edinburgh, on the 8th of July, 1823. The inventory of his estate, which was administered by his son Henry, lists many payments owing by the rich and famous for their portraits.
He is best represented in the National Gallery of Scotland, which contains, amongst many others, his self-portrait and portraits of Sir John Sinclair, Mrs. James Campbell, Dr. Alexander Adam, and Lord Newton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection in New York City and the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California, have examples of his work. The University of Edinburgh also has a major collection.