Sir Henry Raeburn – painter of ‘The Skating Minister’

4th March 2017
Today marks the birth in 1756 of Scottish painter Sir Henry Raeburn who has left us with some of the most eloquent and lovely paintings of people from the Georgian era. In fact, a great many well-known images from that period, such as The Skating Minister (see below), are by his hand.
portrait on postage stamp of Georgian-era artist
A 70's postage stamp showing Sir Henry's self-portrait
Apparently, he preferred to paint directly from life, with his sitter right there before the easel, rather than occupying himself too much with preparatory sketches. This should not really come as such a surprise, since his portraits have a wonderful spontaneous style and fluency. They are full of character and intelligence, as if the sitter and the painter could easily become engaged in conversation.
Georgian-era gentleman with green coat
Robert-Brown-of-Newhall, 1792.
Raeburn was an orphan and did not have the most auspicious start in life. Not much is know about his childhood, but it is thought that his family had military connections. He became an apprentice jeweller as a young man, however, and quickly developed his natural talent for art. He married well, and thereafter became hugely popular as a portrait painter in Scotland, particularly among Edinburgh society.

Edinburgh at the time was the epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment. This period also coincided with an interest in developing the union of Scotland and England. Raeburn's reputation was certainly enhanced, therefore, by being elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1815. He received a knighthood from King George IV in 1822.
portrait of lady from 18th century with landscape background
Portrait of Mrs E.Bethune.

Style and Diversity

I particularly like the variety and diversity of his subjects, and the way he makes use of space. His style incorporates great swathes of otherwise empty colour and tone that almost seem superfluous to the composition at first, but which are really quite splendid and clever.
elderly Georgian-era man in judge's wig with red cloak
Portrait of Robert Hodshon Cay (1758-1810).
Raeburn also had women sit for him, of course. They seem quite relaxed in his company. And the results remind us of how perceptive in character and often serenely engaging Georgian women could be.
portrait of lady in white dress and powdered hair
Portrait of Ms Eleanor Urquhart.
Georgian-era woman in ourdoor setting - portrait
Lady Anne Torphicen.
portrait of 18th century English lady in white dress, seated in outdoor setting
Portrait of Mrs.Macdowall.
And in an age when men continued to dress in flamboyant style, there was also the occasional androgynous young Georgian, too ...
young Georgian-era man in dark coat and white cravat
William Fraser of Reelig.

Scottish Enlightenment

The age of the Scottish Enlightenment produced many great writers and scientists. Sir Walter Scott's portrait is one we have all seen in our history books. It is THE portrait of the famous Scottish novelist - and it's another masterpiece by Raeburn.
Sir Henry Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott the writer, man in waistcoat and jacket, bat-wing collar
Writer Sir Walter Scott.
It should also be noted that Sir Henry was often called upon to do family portraits. He portrayed children particularly well, with a demonstration of charm, inquisitiveness and mischief in equal measure.
mostly text, a banner ad linking to a book page - the novel 'Wildish'
Georgian-era lady in red dress with grandaughter nearby in white
Mrs Alexander Allan with Granddaughter.
full-length portrait of two young Georgian-era boys
The Allen Brothers (James and John Lee, early 1790s).

Sir Henry Raeburn's Masterpiece

Finally, here is perhaps Henry Raeburn's most famous and beloved of works - the painting of 'The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch.' Otherwise known as 'The Skating Minister.'
painting of man skating on ice in black period clothing of a minister
The Skating Minister.
I think it must be one of the all-time greats of the art world with its unusual subject matter, its sense of motion and balance, and that wonderful use of space that I mentioned earlier. It is quirky, funny, and quite brilliant.

I hope you agree that Sir Henry Raeburn remains, especially for those of us interested in history and human nature, one of the great exponents of the Georgian age. His portraits are full of character, and have that quality of humanity that is based in the familiar. It is as if the people he painted could almost be those we meet with today. Simply wonderful. Happy Birthday Sir Henry!
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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