Scottish portrait painter
Born 1756 Died 1823
Sir Henry Raeburn,, was born at Stockbridge, a suburb of Edinburgh, on the 4th of March 1756, the son of a manufacturer of the city. He was early left an orphan. Being placed in Heriot's Hospital, he received there the elements of a sound education, and at the age of fifteen was apprenticed to a goldsmith in Edinburgh. Here he had some little opportunity for the practice of the humbler kinds of art, and various pieces of jewelry, mourning rings, and the like, adorned with minute drawings on ivory by his hand, are still extant.
Soon he took to the production of carefully finished miniatures; and, meeting with success and patronage, he extended his practice to oil-painting, being all the while quite self-taught. The worthy goldsmith his master watched the progress of his pupil with interest, gave him every encouragement, and introduced him to David Martin, who had been the favourite assistant of Allan Ramsay junior, and was now the leading portrait-painter in Edinburgh. Raeburn received considerable assistance from Martin, and was especially aided by the loan of portraits to copy. Soon the young painter had gained sufficient skill to render it advisable that he should devote himself exclusively to painting.
When he was in his twenty-second year he was asked to paint the portrait of a young lady whom he had previously observed and admired when he was sketching from nature in the fields. She was the daughter of Peter Edgar of Bridglands, and widow of Count Leslie. The lady was speedily fascinated by the handsome and intellectual young artist, and in a month she became his wife, bringing him an ample fortune. This early insurance against the risks of his chosen profession, did not, however, diminish his anxiety to excel. The acquisition of wealth affected neither his enthusiasm nor his industry, but rather spurred him to greater efforts to acquire a thorough knowledge of his craft.
After the approved fashion of artists of the time, it was resolved that Raeburn should visit Italy, and he accordingly started with his wife. In London he was kindly received by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who gave him excellent advice as to his study in Rome, especially recommending to his attention the works of Michelangelo. He also offered him more substantial pecuniary aid, which was declined as unneeded; but Raeburn carried with him to Italy many valuable introductions from the president of the Academy. In Rome he made the acquaintance of Gavin Hamilton, of Batoni, and of Byers. For the advice of the last-named he used to acknowledge himself greatly indebted, particularly for the recommendation that he should never copy an object from memory, but, from the principal figure to the minutest accessory, have it placed before him. After two years of study in Italy he returned to Edinburgh in 1787, where he began a most successful career as a portrait-painter. In that year he executed an admirable seated portrait of the second Lord President Dundas.
Of his earlier portraiture we have interesting examples in the bust-likeness of Mrs Johnstone of Baldovie and in the three-quarter-length of Dr James Hutton, works which, if they are somewhat timid and tentative in handling and wanting in the trenchant brush-work and assured mastery of subsequent productions, are full of delicacy and character. The portrait of John Clerk, Lord Eldin, and of Principal Hill of St Andrews belong to a somewhat later period. Raeburn was fortunate in the time in which he practised portraiture. Sir Walter Scott, Blair, Mackenzie, Woodhouselee, Robertson, Home, Ferguson, and Dugald Stewart were resident in Edinburgh, and they all, along with a host of others less celebrated, honoured the painters canvases. Of his fully matured manner we could have no finer examples than his own portrait and that of the Rev. Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood, the bust of Dr Wardrop of Torbane Hill, the two full-lengths of Adam Rolland of Gask, the remarkable paintings of Lord Newton and Dr Alexander Adam in the National Gallery of Scotland, and that of William Macdonald of St Martins. It was commonly believed that Raeburn was less successful in his female than in his male portraits, but the exquisite full-length of his wife, the smaller likeness of Mrs R. Scott Moncrieff in the Scottish National Gallery, and that of Mrs Robert Bell, and others, are sufficient to prove that he could portray all the grace and beauty of the gentler sex.
Raeburn spent his life in Edinburgh, rarely visiting the metropolis, and then only for brief periods, thus preserving his own sturdy individuality, if he missed the opportunity of engrafting on it some of the fuller refinement and delicacy of the London portraitists. But though he, personally, may have lost some of the advantages which might presumably have resulted from closer association with the leaders of English art, and from contact with a wider public, Scottish art certainly gained much from his disinclination to leave his native land. He became the acknowledged chief of the school which was growing up in Scotland during the earlier years of the 19th century, and to his example and influence at a critical period is undoubtedly due much of the striking virility by which the work of his followers and immediate successors is distinguished. Evidences of this influence can be perceived even in the present day. His leisure was employed in athletic sports, in his garden, and in architectural and mechanical pursuits, and so varied were the interests that filled his life that his sitters used to say of him, "You would never take him for a painter till he seizes the brush and palette". Professional honors fell thick upon him. In 1812 he was elected president of the Society of Artists in Edinburgh, in 1814 associate, and in the following year full member of the Royal Academy. In 1822 he was knighted by George IV and appointed His Majesty's limner for Scotland. He died at Edinburgh on the 8th of July 1823.
In his own day the portraits of Raeburn were excellently and voluminously engraved, especially by the last members of the great school of English mezzotint. In 1876 a collection of over 300 of his works was brought together in the Royal Scottish Academy galleries; in the following year a series of twelve of his finest portraits was included in the winter exhibition of the Royal Academy, London; and a volume of photographs from his paintings was edited by Dr John Brown.
Raeburn possessed all the necessary requirements of a popular and successful portrait-painter. He had the power of producing a telling and forcible likeness; his productions are distinguished by breadth of effect, by admirable force of handling, by execution of the swiftest and most resolute sort. Wilkie has recorded that, while travelling in Spain and studying the works of Velazquez, the brush-work of that master reminded him constantly of the square touch of Raeburn. But the portraits of Velazquez are unsurpassable examples of tone as well as of handling, and it is in the former quality that Raeburn is often wanting, possibly because his inclinations led him to study effects of diffused light in preference to those which were strong in contrasts of light and shade. The colour of his portraits is sometimes crude and out of relation, inclining to the use of positive and definite local pigments, and too little perceptive of the changeful subtleties and modifications of atmospheric effect. His draperies frequently consist of little more than two colours the local hue of the fabric and the black which, more or less graduated, expresses its shadows and modelling. In his flesh, too, he wants in all but his very best productions the delicate refinements of colouring which distinguish the works of the great English portrait-painters. His faces, with all their excellent truth of form and splendid vigour of handling, are often hard and bricky in hue.
Yet, after all allowances have been made for what deficiencies there may be in his work, his right to a place among, the greater British masters cannot be contested. The masculine power, the vitality and the strength of characterization which are so apparent in his painting entitle him to the serious attention of all lovers of fine achievement; and there is much to be learned from study of his methods. His sincerity and freedom from artificial graces of style can be specially recognized, and his frank directness is always attractive.
See Life of Sir Henry Raeburn
, R.A., by his great-grandson William Raeburn Andrew, M.A. Oxon. (2nd ed., 1894), which contains some of the latest information, together with a complete catalogue of the exhibition of 1876. There may also be consulted Works of Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A.
, with tributes by Dr John Brown and others, published by Andrew Elliot, Edinburgh; Tribute to the Memory of Raeburn
by Dr Andrew Duncan, the Catalogues of the loan exhibitions in Edinburgh of 1884 and 1901; and the Essay by W. E. Henley; Sir Henry Raeburn
by William Ernest Henley (1890) with a finely produced series of plates, printed by T. and A. Constable for the now defunct Royal Association for Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland
. But the leading work on the subject, and the most splendidly illustrated, is Sir Henry Raeburn
by Sir Walter Armstrong, with an introduction by R. A. M. Stevenson and a biographical and descriptive catalogue by J. L. Caw (1901).
Being the entry for RAEBURN, SIR HENRY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.