Issue 232
July/August 2024

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Jul 24, 2024

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Seeing Eye to Eye with Raeburn

The great portraitist remembered on the bicentenary of his death in an eloquent exhibition in Kirkcudbright's fine 'Town Hall' galleries

MENTION THE NAME Henry Raeburn and images of sedate, early 19th century Scottish men, professors, judges, generals and Highland chieftains, spring to mind. Added to these is the wacky, skating Reverend Robert Walker, whose profile, printed on carrier bags and coasters, has become The Scottish National Gallery's logo. The thoughtful portrait of violinist Neil Gow is another treasure, as are representations of doughty, bonneted matrons.

Lady in a Lace Cap, possibly Raeburn's wife, Anne Edgar. NGS. Bequest Alice Leslie Imglis

There's a lot more to Raeburn. Over a 35 year career, this largely self-taught Edinburgh artist, whose life spanned the Scottish Enlightenment, painted some 1,000 portraits. Some of the most engaging are of the young. Raeburn was particularly talented in painting young women in fashionable, high-waisted, muslin dresses with low necklines and vivacious, spontaneous children.

A fraction of the artist's output (40 portraits) is on show until September 29 at the Kirkcudbright Galleries. This bi-centenary commemoration of Henry Raeburn's death is the first celebration of his work since the major exhibitions in Scotland and London in 1997and has been staged by Kirkcudbright 2000 Ltd and Kirkcudbright Galleries (run by Dumfries & Galloway Council).

Curator, Amanda Herries is responsible for this remarkable show. Her emphasis on the artist's less well-known works, many of a private, domestic nature, is inspiring.

General Frances Dundas and his wife Eliza’s game of chess elegantly displayed against a giant wall nounted chess board

"We were lucky," she writes, "to find some Raeburns still in private hands, and it is wonderful to show them, fresh, to a wide audience. They've come from all over Scotland and England and we've worked hard to bring them together."

Usually restricting himself to recording a sitter's head and upper part of the body, the artist isn't renowned for his figure-work. But a magnificent 1822 full-length portrait in this exhibition belies that assumption. Still owned by the same family, the portrait is of Stair Hathorn Stewart. Handsome in fashionable, skin-tight trousers, he holds the reins of his status symbol, a horse.

Significantly, perhaps, the family owned a Raeburn portrait of Stewart's wife, but it was sold in 1910 when American buyers paid fabulous prices for the artist's work.

Another portrait (c.1812-15) in the hands of the sitters' descendants at Arniston House, is of General Francis Dundas and his wife, Eliza playing chess. More than a portrait, this painting has an amusing and touching narrative as it shows the wife's satisfaction in check-mating her unsuspecting husband.

Althea Dundas Bekker of Arniston and her daughter, Henrietta are accustomed to lending their paintings for exhibitions. The portrait of their chess-playing ancestors has travelled widely. Shortly after Althea inherited Arniston, none other than 'The White House' of America asked to borrow it.

"It was scary seeing it borne away in the furniture van heading for the airport to fly to the US!" she writes. "I think Nixon was the President then and they invited us to tea but we refused because we were busy bringing in the harvest."

Over the past 200 years, the fortunes of many of these sitters' families have ebbed. During Raeburn's career, Scotland prospered globally through trade and industry. With so much money sloshing around, some of it gained through the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean, sugar and tobacco merchants commissioned portraits of themselves and their families.

This exhibition features a portrait of Colin Campbell of Park, who headed a family firm of West India merchants, and his wife, Ann. Colin and Ann's portraits were bequeathed by Isabella A.H.J. Campbell to Glasgow City Council in 1917. Others in this show were acquired by The National Gallery of Scotland, The National Trust of Scotland and The University of Edinburgh.

In one or two cases, they were bequeathed in lieu of death duties and one, a portrait owned by the Campbells of Craigie is, at the moment, up for sale through Angus Haldane Fine Art.

Undoubtedly, the effort expended in sleuthing the provenance of these paintings has been enormous and Herries is indebted to David Mackie who, in his unpublished PhD thesis in six volumes at Edinburgh University (1993), has helped to identify portraits and information about sitters and their families.

An unfinished portrait, the only one of Raeburn's in existence and in private hands, is of Sir John Maxwell of Pollok. Begun in the year before the artist's death, it lay in Raeburn's studio until Maxwell's nephew, Sir William Stirling Maxwell, an art historian and collector of Spanish masters, which can still be viewed at Pollok House, bought it from Raeburn's descendants in 1877.

In her book, 'Henry Raeburn The Mirror of Scotland', (£12 at reception), Herries describes how the artist worked. Intuitively, 'without measuring or sketching, starting with an outline of the forehead, chin, nose and mouth, working on the face first.'

This exhibition also explores the role portraiture has played since the earliest of times. Herries compares Raeburn's period with our own, avowing that both are image-obsessed. Two hundred years ago, the affluent sat once only to be recorded in paint, whereas today the digitally-created 'selfy', democritises portraiture, by producing endless images.

This is a modest, clever show that gives the public a chance to see the humanity and practice of an artist who competes easily with his peers, such as Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence.

It's amazing how Kirkcudbright's small, regional gallery can pack such a punch with an exhibition that throws light on a world-class artist, Scotland's foremost portrait painter.


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