Sir Henry Raeburn self portraitThe mid 18th century was a time when Scots led the world in every field.  It was an intellectual revolution that that included physicist Joseph Black, geologist James Hutton, and economist Adam Smith.

In literature Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns were without peer and the subject of this article Sir Henry Raeburn, a portraitist, became internationally renowned.

Born in Stockbridge (now part of Edinburgh) in 1756, Raeburn’s parents both died when he was an infant and his twelve year old brother William took responsibility for running the family mill and for his brother’s upbringing.

William turned out to be a good businessman and was able to make sure that Henry benefited from an education at George Heriot’s a famous Edinburgh school. This was quite an achievement for William. Henry’s records reveal that at the age of 13 he already had a gift for caricaturing his fellow pupils.

Upon leaving school, instead of studying art he became an apprentice goldsmith to James Gilliland of Edinburgh and became an adept engraver and impressed some very important people with his genius. David Deucher a seal engraver  was especially taken with Henry’s ability since he had received no formal training.

Gilliland and Deucher decided to further Henry’s career by introducing him to David Martin, one of the city’s leading portrait painters, who took the young artist under his wing. It wasn’t long before Raeburn was producing portraits of Edinburgh’s rich and famous and earning a good living on his own.

As word of his skill spread there were many who flocked to his studio and one was Anne Leslie widow of the Earl of Rothes and, as with all great love stories, their attraction grew from the day they met and led to marriage.

Although Countess Leslie had a considerable fortune, Raeburn had no desire to live off his new bride. And, in 1785 Raeburn and Ann traveled to Rome, they lived for 18 months. While en route to the eternal city, Raeburn stopped off in London where he met Sir Joshua Reynolds (also a renowned portrait painter) and Reynolds gave him letters of introduction to  well-known people in the Italian art scene and advised him to study the great men of the Renaissance.

When Raeburn returned home to Edinburgh, he did so with a newly acquired technical competence, which added to his natural flair and enthusiasm.

His clients in the years following his Rome studies included Sir Walter Scott and many other reputable figures, who helped establish Raeburn’s reputation.  Scott sat for Raeburn twice and the two men became good friends.

Nathanial SpensDuring the 1790s there was  series of paintings that further enhanced  Raeburn’s reputation and in 1793 he was commissioned by the Company of Archers to paint one of its prominent member Doctor Nathanial Spens. The portrait now hangs in the Archer’s Hall in Edinburgh.

In 1795 he painted a series of portraits called “The Highland Group”, which included chieftains of old highland clans capturing a vanishing race of men.

By this time he had reached the height of his powers and was honored at home and abroad. In his native city he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  In Europe he was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Florence. In the United States he received a membership of the New York Academy in 1817 and the South Carolina Academy in 1821.

During George IV’s 1822 visit to Edinburgh he was knighted at Hopetoun House in South Queensferry.

After a brief illness the following year, Raeburn died at his home of a brief illness at the age of 67.


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2 Comments on Scotland’s greatest portrait painter

  1. Sarah S. says:

    As per usual, you have chosen an interesting subject. This site is so different from others. I hope it’s getting some traction.

  2. Ben says:

    Another brief and well composed history lesson , Did Raeburn paint the girl in the yellow dress I wonder.
    Well done spittal street your articles are so varied and full of interest. Please keep it up.

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