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Significant Scots
Sir Henry Raeburn


Sir Henry Raeburn RAEBURN, (SIR) HENRY, a celebrated portrait-painter, was the younger son of Mr William Raeburn, a respectable manufacturer at Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, where he was born, 4th March, 1756. While very young he had the misfortune to lose both his parents; but this want was supplied to him, as much as it could be by his elder brother William, who succeeded to the business, and acted always to him the part of a father. It has been represented by some of Sir Henry’s biographers (perhaps with a view of making the after acquirements of the subject of the biography more remarkable), his education at Heriot’s Hospital, a well known and benevolent institution in Edinburgh; but this is not the fact, his brother William having with heartfelt satisfaction given him the scanty, but usual education of that period. In the usual routine of education he was not remarked to display any superiority to his class fellows, but when they were drawing figures on their slates or copy books, those of Raeburn surpassed all the rest; but this did not lead any further. In other respects he was distinguished by the affection of his companions, and formed at that early period intimacies with some of those distinguished friends whose regard accompanied him through life. The circumstances of young Raeburn rendering it necessary that he should, as early as possible, be enabled to provide for his own support, he was at the age of fifteen, apprenticed to a goldsmith, who kept his shop in a dark alley, leading between the Parliament Square and the front of the Old Tolbooth. Here, without receiving any lessons, he began to amuse himself by sketching figures, and ultimately by painting miniatures. ["It was in this situation "says the late Dr A. Duncan, senior, "that my first acquaintance with him commenced, and that, too, on a melancholy occasion. Mr Charles Darwin, son of the justly celebrated Dr Erasmus Darwin, author of that much esteemed poem, ‘The Botanic Garden,’ and of other works demonstrating great genius, died during the course of his medical studies at Edinburgh. At that time I had the honour, though a very young medical lecturer, of ranking Darwin among the number of my pupils. And I need hardly add, that he was a favourite pupil: for, during his studies, he exhibited such uncommon proofs of genius and industry, as could not fail to gain the esteem and affection of every discerning teacher.

"On the death of young Darwin, I was anxious to retain some slight token in remembrance of my highly esteemed young friend; and, for that purpose, I obtained a small portion of his hair. I applied to Mr Gilliland, at that time an eminent jeweller in Edinburgh, to have it preserved in a mourning ring. He told me, that one of his present apprentices was a young man of great genius, and could prepare for me in hair, a memorial that would demonstrate both taste and art. Young Raeburn was immediately called, and proposed to execute, on a small trinket, which might be hung at a watch, a muse weeping over an urn, marked with the initials of Charles Darwin. This trinket was finished by Raeburn in a manner which, to me, afforded manifest proof of very superior genius, and I still preserve it, as a memorial of the singular and early merit, both of Darwin and of Raeburn.] His master, at first incensed by his apparent inattention to business, was afterwards astonished by the merit of his performances, and, with a liberality hardly to have been expected, conducted him to a place where he might gather the means of improvement in his self-assumed art, namely, the studio of Mr David Martin, the principal portrait-painter in Edinburgh. He was delighted with the works there presented to his eye; and Martin, on the other hand, spoke encouragingly to the young artist. His miniatures soon became so famous, that commissions came rapidly in, and he generally painted two in the week. As this employment, of course, withdrew his time almost entirely from trade, he made an arrangement with his master, by which the latter was compensated for the loss he incurred on that account. While still an apprentice, he began to paint in oil, and on a large scale. To aid him in this task, he obtained from Martin the loan of several pictures to copy; but that painter did not contribute advice or assistance in any other shape; and having once unjustly accused the young student of selling one of the copies, Raeburn indignantly refused any farther accommodation of this nature. Having begun, however, to paint large oil pictures, he soon adopted them in preference to miniatures, a style which he gradually gave up; nor did his manner in later life retain any trace of that mode of painting: all was broad, massy, and vigorous.

He had thus become a painter almost by intuition; for there is no ascertaining that he ever received any direct instructions in the mysteries, or even in the manual operations, of his art. It was in his twenty-second year, and when practising regularly as a rival of his old friend Martin, that he became acquainted, under extraordinary circumstances, with the lady who became his wife. "One day," says his most animated biographer, [Mr. Allan Cunningham, in his Lives of British Painters.]"a young lady presented herself at his studio, and desired to sit for her portrait. He instantly remembered having seen her in some of his excursions, when, with his sketch-book in his hand, he was noting down some fine snatches of scenery; and, as the appearance of any thing living and lovely gives an additional charm to a landscape, the painter, like Gainsborough, in similar circumstances, had readily admitted her into his drawing. This circumstance, he said, had had its influence. On further acquaintance, he found that, besides personal charms, she had sensibility and wit. His respect for her did not affect his skill of hand, but rather inspired it, and he succeeded in making a fine portrait. The lady, Ann Edgar, the daughter of Peter Edgar, esquire, of Bridgelands, was much pleased with the skill, and likewise with the manners of the artist; and about a month or so after the adventure of the studio, she gave him her hand in marriage; bestowing at once an affectionate wife, and a handsome fortune."

Having now the means of improving in his art, he set out for London, and was introduced to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who treated him with distinguished liberality and kindness, even to the extent of offering him money to prosecute his studies in Rome, which he was not aware that Raeburn did not need. Furnished with introductions by this eminent person, he set out for the capital of the arts, accompanied by his wife. At Rome, he was considerably indebted for advice to Mr Gavin Hamilton, and likewise to Mr Byers, who gave him the excellent counsel never to copy any object from memory, but, from the principal figure to the minutest accessory, to have it placed before him. To the observance of this rule, Raeburn imputed in a great measure, the improvement which was observed in his subsequent pictures.

His powers now fully matured, he returned in 1787 to his native city, and set up his easel in a fashionable house in George Street. The works of Martin—though certainly better than the biographers of Raeburn delight to represent them—were so much eclipsed by the junior artist, that the whole tide of employment left the one painter for the other. In vain did the veteran prophesy that this fever of approbation could not last, and that "the lad in George Street" painted better before he went to Rome. The nation persisted in being of another opinion, and Martin was at last obliged to retire from the field in despair. Raeburn at once assumed that pre-eminent rank in his profession, which, notwithstanding the multitude of rivals who afterwards rose around him, he bore to the day of his death.

The subsequent history of this artist, is chiefly that of his pictures. For thirty-six years he was constantly employed in his professional duties, and painted the most of the eminent persons who lived in Scotland during that time. Unfortunately no record has been preserved of his various works; but they are to be found in almost every distinguished mansion in the country.* Having stored his mind with ideas drawn from the purest school of modern art, he was indebted for his subsequent improvement solely to his own reflections, and the study of nature. He was never in the habit of repairing to London; and, indeed, he did not visit that metropolis above three times, nor did he reside in it altogether more than four months. He was thus neither in the habit of seeing the works of his contemporaries, nor the English collections of old pictures. Whatever disadvantage might attend this, it never stopped the career of his improvement. Probably, indeed, it had the effect of preserving that originality which formed always the decided character of his productions, and kept him free from being trammelled by the style of any class of artists. Perhaps, also, the elevation and dignity of style which he always maintained might be greatly owing to his exclusive acquaintance with the works of the Italian masters. In English collections, the Dutch specimens are necessarily so prominent, both as to number and choice, that a familiar acquaintance with them must be apt to beget a taste for that homely truth, and minute finishing, in which their merit consists.

The first excellence of a portrait, and for the absence of which nothing can atone, must evidently be its resemblance. In this respect, Sir Henry’s eminence was universally acknowledged. In the hands of the best artists, there must, in this part of their task, be something precarious; but, in a vast majority of instances, his resemblances were most striking. They were also happily distinguished, by being always the most favourable that could be taken of the individual, and were usually expressive, as well of the character as of the features. This desirable object was effected, not by the introduction of any ideal touches, or any departure from the strictest truth, but by selecting and drawing out those aspects under which the features appeared most dignified and pleasing. He made it his peculiar study to bring out the mind of his subjects. His penetration quickly empowered him to discover their favourite pursuits and topics of conversation. Sir Henry’s varied knowledge and agreeable manners then easily enabled him, in the course of the sitting, to lead them into an animated discussion on those ascertained subjects. As they spoke, he caught their features, enlivened by the strongest expression of which they were susceptible. While he thus made the portrait much more correct and animated, his sitters had a much more agreeable task than those who were pinned up for hours in a constrained and inanimate posture, and in a state of mental vacuity. So agreeable, indeed, did many of the most distinguished and intelligent among them find his society, that they courted it ever after, and studiously converted the artist into a friend and acquaintance.

Besides his excellence in this essential quality of portrait, Sir Henry possessed also, in an eminent degree, those secondary merits, which are requisite to constitute a fine painting. His drawing was correct, his colouring rich and deep, and his lights well disposed. There was something bold, free, and open in the whole style of his execution. The accessories, whether of drapery, furniture, or landscapes, were treated with elegance and spirit; yet without elaborate and brilliant finishing, which makes them become principals. These parts were always kept in due subordination to the human figure; while the head came always out as the prominent part. Animals, particular that noble species the horse, were introduced with peculiar felicity; and Sir Henry’s equestrian portraits are perhaps his very best performances. The able manner in which the animal itself was drawn, and in which it was combined with the human figure, were equally conspicuous.

In private life, Raeburn was remarkable for his courteous and amiable manners, and his great domestic worth. While his painting-rooms were in George Street, and latterly in York Place, he resided in a sequestered villa called St Bernard’s, near the village where he drew his first breath, then distant from, but now engrossed in, the extending city,--where he amused his leisure by the society of his children and grand-children, the cultivation of his garden, and the study of ship-building, and some other mechanical pursuits, for he had a liking. The hours between nine and four he almost invariably spent in his studio. He latterly found another kind of employment for his leisure, in planning out the environs of his little villa, which consisted of about ten acres, in lots for building, and in designing the architectural elevations of a little group of streets with which the ground was to be occupied. It may readily be supposed that in this task he manifested a superiority of corresponding in some measure with his supremacy in another branch of art. The suburb which has arisen upon his property, and which was only commenced in his own lifetime, is accordingly conspicuous for the elegance displayed both in its general arrangement and in its details; and has become a favourite residence with such individuals as do not find it necessary for professional reasons to live nearer the centre of the city.

In 1814, Raeburn was made an associate of the Royal Academy, and in the subsequent year he became an Academician. He afterwards obtained, from foreign countries, many honours of the same kind. In 1822, when George IV. visited Scotland, the long-established fame of Raeburn, together with his fortune and gentlemanly manners, pointed him out as an individual in whom the king might signify his respect for Scottish art, and he was accordingly knighted at Hopetoun House, on the last day of his majesty’s residence in the country. Some weeks afterwards, his brethren in art, now increased to a large and respectable body, gave him a dinner, as a token of their admiration of his talents and character. In his speech on this occasion, he said modestly that he was glad of their approbation, and had tried to merit it; for he had never indulged in a mean or selfish spirit towards any brother artists, nor had at any time withheld the praise which was due to them, when their works happened mentioned.

Sir Henry received afterwards the appointment of portrait-painter to his majesty for Scotland; a nomination, however, which was not announced to him till the very day when he was seized with his last illness. The king, when conferring the dignity of knighthood, had expressed a wish to have a portrait of himself painted by this great artist; but Sir Henry’s numerous engagements prevented him from visiting the metropolis for that purpose. It reflects great honour on the subject of this memoir, that he never gave way to those secure and indolent habits, which advanced age and established reputation are so apt to engender. He continued, with all the enthusiasm of a student, to seek and to attain farther improvement. The pictures of his two or three last years are unquestionably the best that he ever painted. But perhaps the most interesting part of his recent works consists in a series of half-length portraits of eminent Scotsmen, which, during this period, he executed for his private gratification.

This amiable and excellent man was suddenly affected with a general decay and debility, not accompanied by any visible complaint. This state of illness, after continuing for about a week to baffle all the efforts of medical skill, terminated fatally on the 8th July, 1823, when he had reached the age of 67.

Few men were better calculated to command respect in society, than Sir Henry Raeburn. His varied knowledge, his gentlemanly and agreeable manners, an extensive command of anecdote, always well told and happily introduced, the general correctness and propriety of his whole deportment, made him be highly valued by many of the most distinguished individuals in Edinburgh, both as a companion and as a friend. His conversation might be said in some degree to resemble his style of painting,.—there was the same ease and simplicity, the same total absence of affectation of every kind, and the same manly turn of sense and genius. But we are not aware that the humorous gayety and sense of the ludicrous, which often enlivened his conversation, ever guided his pencil.

Sir Henry Raeburn, like Raphael, Michael Angelo, and some other masters of the art, possessed the advantages of a tall and commanding person, and a noble and expressive countenance. He excelled in archery, golf, and other Scottish exercises; and it may be added that, while engaged in painting, his step and attitudes were at once stately and graceful.

By his lady, who survived him ten years, Sir Henry had two sons; Peter, a youth of great promise, who died at nineteen; and Henry, who, with his wife and family, lived under the same roof with his father during the whole of their joint lives, and was his most familiar friend and companion. To the children of this gentleman, the illustrious painter left the bulk of his fortune, chiefly consisting of houses and ground-rents in the suburb of St Bernard’s.

* The following pictures by Sir Henry Raeburn, besides others, have been engraved:--[Full length] First viscount Melville, in peer’s robes. General Sir David Baird, with horse. Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Macdonell of Glengarry. Lord chief commissioner Adam. Henry Mackenzie. General the earl of Hopetoun, with horse.—(Three quarters lengih] Captain G. Duff of the Mars, who fell at Trafalgar. Neil Gow, with his fiddle. Dr Alexander Adam. James Pillans, professor of humanity, Edinburgh. John Clerk, of Eldin. Charles Hope president of the court of session. Robert Macqueen of Braxfield, in justiciary robes. Hon. Henry Erskine. Dugald Stewart, professor of moral philosophy. James Gregory, M. D. Robert Blair, president of the court of session. George the Fourth. Robert Dundas, president of the court of session. John Elder, provost of Edinburgh, in his robes. William Creech, bookseller. Professor Thomas Hope. Dr Hugh Blair. James Balfour Esq., golfer— [Half length.] Rev. Dr Andrew Hunter, professor of divinity. George Jardine, professor of logic, Glasgow. Justice clerk Macqueen. Lord chief baron Dundas. Hay, lord Newton. Rev. Dr David Johnston minister of North Leith. Rev. Dr John Erskine. Dr James Hamilton. John Gray, Esq., golfer. Professor Playfair. Sir Walter Scott, when young; Ditto, when older. Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Bart. Tytler of Woodhouselee. Harry David Inglis advocate. Sir Henry Raeburn. Dr George Hill, principal of St Andrews. Rev. Archibald Alison. Mr Francis Jeffrey. Henry Cockburn. Lord Meadowbank._The following are portraits which, with many others, have not been engraved: Sir Henry Stewart of Allanton. Mr Benjamin Bell, surgeon. Mr Leonard Horner. Mr Henry Raeburn, the painter’s son. The duke of Hamilton. Lord Frederick Campbell. The laird of Macnab, in highland costume. Earl of Breadalbane. Sir John Douglas. Marquis of Huntly, Sir John Hay. Archibald Constable. Rev. F. Thomson. Sir John and Lady Clerk. Mr Rennie, engineer. Dr Lindsay, Pinkieburn. Dr Alexander Duncan.


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