All-Round Raeburn : The Man and His Milieu
by Dr Patricia Andrew

December 2023 Lunch

Born in the then village of Stockbridge in 1756, Henry Raeburn was the son of a prosperous yarn-supplier and had three siblings. Unfortunately, his father fell into debt and was imprisoned, then he and his wife died, leaving Henry to the care of his eldest brother William who entered him into George Heriot’s Hospital. From there he was indentured to a jeweller, James Gilliland, who worked and traded from the Luckenbooths by St Giles Cathedral.  Henry both learned about the making of jewellery, and benefitted from his Master’s contacts through marriage with the publisher John Murray in London. He also studied at the Trustees’ Academy under Alexander Runciman, and knew the painter David Martin, a Scot who had returned from London (best known today from his portrait of Benjamin Franklin now hanging in the White House). Nevertheless, it is still unclear how he was drawn into portraiture, and for some time he had neither the personal connections nor financial backers to support him on the traditional route to study in Rome.

He was both lucky and had an opportunist streak too. He married a wealthy widow, Ann Leslie, twelve years his senior, whose fortune enabled him to acquire property; to her two daughters they added two sons. In 1784 he made his belated study visit to Rome, where he met people who would influence his work, including Scots entrepreneur James Byres, and the portraitist Pompeo Batoni who painted Scots on the Grand Tour. 

Despite having no base or experience in London, his career now took off with a portrait of Robert Dundas, Lord Arniston, and he established a principle (said to have been a piece of advice from Byres) never to paint from memory. His portraits generally took around five sittings, and unusually involved no preliminary drawings. His 1790s masterpiece was a portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, set against the background of their estate; it also revealed a careless side to him, for he entered it too late for the Royal Academy exhibition in London of 1792. He was also criticised for his casual handling of trees and other landscape features (and anatomy was not his strongest point, perhaps because he had never studied it formally). However, he deployed dramatic and unusual lighting effects and there was no doubting his skilful handling of his subjects’ hands. The portrait of the skating minister the Revd Robert Walker on Duddingston Loch has been attributed to Raeburn, and its perfect poise suggests his genius. 

Edinburgh was at this time at the height of its reputation as a city of the Enlightenment. Though not purporting to be a great intellectual, Henry kept up with developments, and had a variety of interests – as a golfer, model boat-builder and gardener – so was a good conversationalist with his clients during their sittings. He moved from 36 George Street to 32 York Place, building a studio which benefited from shutters to manage the light from large windows. One of his neighbours was the artist Alexander Nasmyth, who unlike Raeburn painted landscapes (including St Bernard’s Well in Stockbridge, which he had designed). They held very different political views, though the two men always remained on good terms. 

Raeburn’s treatments of Highland dress on figures like Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, dressed in costumes of their own design, raised eyebrows in London, but a more classic treatment has given us the fiddler Niel Gow. George Abercromby of Tullibody looks wonderfully grumbly, while geologist James Hutton has the impatient air of someone who would rather be elsewhere.

Raeburn’s development of areas of Stockbridge – including Ann Street which bears his wife’s name – extended him, and in 1808 he was declared bankrupt due to family business failures. He had to sell York Place, but leased it back for the rest of his life, and some of his output became more hurried and of lesser quality (a predicament echoed by Sir Walter Scott’s a few years later). Nevertheless, his confidence – some might say over-confidence – was undiminished.

Raeburn was generous in assisting the formation of the Associated Society of Artists, which eventually became the Royal Scottish Academy. Iin 1815 he was elected to Royal Academy, but despite the lure of London he was happier to avoid competition by remaining in Edinburgh, being  rewarded by becoming King’s Limner and Painter to George IV in Scotland. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1820, and knighted in 1822, when sculptor Thomas Campbell made a bust of him. Perhaps opportunistic to the end, he forsook his marked plot in St Cuthbert’s graveyard to be buried in that of the new St John’s Episcopal Church. 

A colleague Colvin Smith took over his studio, and emulators included the miniaturist William Yellowlees, who moved to London where he was known as the Little Raeburn. After a lull in Henry’s reputation, an exhibition took place in 1876 which was reviewed admiringly by Robert Louis Stevenson. On the building of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery he was featured in the internal frieze by William Hole, and in a statue by Pittendrigh MacGillivray on the façade (and later, the Scottish colourist S. J. Peploe was clearly influenced by Raeburn in his use of black). Keeper Duncan Thomson curated a major exhibition in 1987, and in 2001 the National Gallery in London acquired its first Raeburn. In 2006 an Edinburgh conference commemorated the 250th anniversary of Raeburn’s  birth. In 2020, photographer David Eustace achieved a lighter touch by collaborating with the present owner of 32 York Place on a portfolio of images of the senators of the College of Justice – a project designed also to promote the building’s letting potential. In 2023, the bicentenary of Raeburn’s death has been marked by an exhibition in the National Trust for Scotland’s Georgian House on Charlotte Square.