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.
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.
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 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.
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 Ms Eleanor Urquhart.
Lady Anne Torphicen.
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 ...
William Fraser of Reelig.
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.
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.
Mrs Alexander Allan with Granddaughter.
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.'
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!