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Issue 71 - Portrait of an artist

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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Portrait of an artist

Meet the man who painted the nation

Henry Raeburn was one of those men whom one would have liked to know. He had a God-given talent, which he loved to practice, and it made him rich and successful. He was generally acknowledged to be a man of great charm and built up a strong circle of friends.

He was born in 1756 by Water of Leith in Stockbridge, then a village at the edge of Edinburgh and now a fashionable part of the city.

He father ran a modestly successful business boiling yarn for the wool trade. He died young but his eldest son took over firm and gave his younger brother an education.

Henry was apprenticed to a jeweller when he was 16 and soon showed an aptitude for painting miniatures that were then part of this trade. His master encouraged him, sending him to the studio of fashionable portrait painter David Martin.

However Raeburn was already working out his own ideas and techniques and they owed nothing to the conventional painting practices of the time.

He finished his apprenticeship before 1780 and almost immediately set himself up in business.

One of his first subjects was a rich widow a dozen years older than him, who had two children and a substantial fortune.

They fell in love and were married within a month of her portrait being completed.

He may have already made his mark as a painter by 1784 when, after having two children of his own, he made arrangements for his wife and went to London to study the fashionable portraitists of the time such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, and then went on to Rome. He was back in Edinburgh two years later and buckled down to his near 40-year career as a superbly accomplished and prolific portrait painter who completely dominated the field in Scotland.

Unlike other artists of his day he did nothing in the way of preparations. He used a single source of light and when he moved from his first studio in George Street to a palatial mansion in York Place, he set up a complex system of shutters so that the light would reflect on his subject the way he wanted. One sitter left a record of his working methods. 'He spoke a few words to me in his usual brief and kindly way - evidently to put me into an agreeable mood; and then having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, set up his easel beside me with the canvass ready to receive the colour. When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face towards me, till he was nigh the other end of his room; he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvass, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time.

Having done this, he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvass and painted a few minutes more. I had sat to other artists; their way was quite different - they made an outline carefully in chalk, measured it with compasses, placed the canvass close to me, and looking me almost without ceasing in the face, proceeded to fill up the outline with colour. They succeeded best in the minute detail - Raeburn best in the general result of the expression; they obtained by means a multitude of little touches what he found by broader masses; they gave more of the man - he gave most of the mind.' Raeburn loved his job and loved conversation.

He would seek a characteristic and interesting expression on the face of his subject during an animated dialogue and set it down on his canvas.

The more he liked the sitter, the better the portrait. During his career he painted at least 600 portraits. Since he kept no records, it may have been as many as a thousand. He created a remarkable register of the elite of the nation at a time when Edinburgh with the Enlightenment still in full sway held some of the most stimulating people in Europe, together with a good quota of country lairds and their wives who came to his studio to be recorded for their posterity. Most were head and shoulder depictions, but he did bravura full-length paintings that have adorned many a shortbread tin. He only worked in Edinburgh; he painted only Scots so his genius was largely unknown in fashionable circles in London, although he was elected to the Royal Academy in 1815.

Painting was not his sole interest. He was a horticulturalist, experimenting with hot houses and marine architecture. He was a keen angler and, along with rod and sketchbook, would disappear into the hills and woods of Scotland for weeks at a time. He was a properly developer, responsible for Ann Street, one of the prettiest in Edinburgh, and Stockbridge. He was director of an insurance company. One of his merchant ventures went wrong in 1808 and he went bankrupt but money flowed in through his paintings and it does not seem to have affected his grand lifestyle. He was made a member of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1819, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1820, a knight in 1822, and King's Painter and Limner in Scotland in 1823. His health suddenly failed that year and he died after a short illness, still at the height of his powers and admired by all who knew him.

Raeburn's paintings have been in and out of fashion in the centuries since his death. A portrait of a dull cleric can still be bought for less than £10,000 whilst his more spectacular works can cost over £1 million.

He has always been popular in the United States and the leading collections all have examples of his work. They are in the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. His unique and original talent has left us with a superb record of the faces of his contemporaries. Curiously, his most famous work showing his friend the Rev Robert Walker skating on Duddingston loch may not have been painted by him at all. Its attribution is mired in academic controversy.


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