Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Raeburn, Henry
RAEBURN, Sir HENRY (1756–1823), portrait-painter, was born on 4 March 1756 at Stockbridge, then a suburb of Edinburgh. 'The Scottish Reynolds,' as he has been called, was the son of Robert Raeburn, a successful Edinburgh manufacturer, and of his wife, Ann Elder. The Raeburns were of border origin. A hill farm in Annandale, the property of Sir Walter Scott's family, still bears their name, and is said to have once been the home of the race. The painter himself claimed to be 'Raeburn of that ilk,' and asserted that his forbears held the land before the Scotts. In the peaceful times which succeeded the union of the two kingdoms, the Raeburns, like other border lairds, settled down quietly to a pastoral life and agriculture. Some larger ambition, however, moved the painter's father to try his fortune in trade in the capital. His venture proved successful. He became a citizen of repute and a millowner, and on his death left a considerable business to be carried on by the elder of his two children, William. The latter was twelve years older than the artist, and when Henry was left an orphan at the age of six, his elder brother took the place of both parents. He was educated at Heriot's Hospital, which he left at the age of fifteen. He seems to have given no signs of precocity, save in the superiority of his illicit caricatures to those of his classmates. Immediately on leaving the hospital he was apprenticed to one Gilliland, a goldsmith and jeweller in Edinburgh. An interesting relic of this early training still exists in a jewel executed for Professor Duncan in memory of Charles Darwin (uncle of the famous Charles Darwin), who died in 1778, aged 20, while an Edinburgh student. Before he was sixteen Raeburn began to paint water-colour miniatures of his friends. It has been commonly said that he had never even seen a picture when his miniatures first began to attract attention. This, however, is hardly credible. An intelligent boy of his class could not have grown up in Edinburgh without seeing a certain number of works of art. His achievements were in any case remarkable enough to excite his master Gilliland's warm interest and admiration, and the good-natured goldsmith introduced his apprentice to David Martin [q. v.], then the fashionable portrait-painter of the Scottish capital. If Raeburn was the Reynolds of Scotland, Martin may be called its Hudson. The young aspirant no doubt owed much to the older and less gifted artist. The pictures in Martin's studio fired his ambition and led him to adopt a broader treatment in his miniatures. Martin received him kindly, giving him the run of his house and allowing him to copy in his studio. But perhaps some foreboding of future rivalry prevented Martin from offering any direct help or practical encouragement. Finally a coolness sprang up between the pair, the master having unjustly accused the scholar of selling one of the copies he had been allowed to make. Meanwhile the success of his miniatures emboldened Raeburn to devote himself entirely to portrait-painting. His lack of technical training hampered him seriously at the outlet. He had to find out for himself all the rudiments of his art—how to prepare his colours, set his palette, and generally to manage his tools. But hard work and earnest study from nature proved the best road to efficiency. His first essays in oil show none of the small and over-careful treatment that might be expected from a miniaturist. Almost from the first his work in the oil medium was vigorous and broad. He passed with consummate ease from the conscientious delicacy of the miniaturist to the bold, square execution which marks his life-size portraits.
Among the friends whose advice and encouragement he found most valuable in his early struggles was the young advocate John Clerk [q. v.], afterwards the well-known judge of the court of session, under the title of Lord Eldin. Raeburn has helped to immortalise this lifelong friend by two fine portraits. Clerk often joined the painter in his sketching expeditions. Money was then scarce with both, and Cunningham gives an amusing account of the shifts to which they were sometimes reduced. In neither case, happily, did the probation last very long. Raeburn soon began to make a name for himself in his native city; commissions flowed in, and a marriage, at once romantic and provident, set him beyond the reach of poverty at the age of twenty-two. In 1778 a lady presented herself at the young painter's studio to sit for her portrait, and was at once recognised as a fair unknown he had met in some sketching excursion and had introduced into a drawing. She was Ann, daughter of a small laird Peter Edgar of Bridgelands, and the widow of a certain Count Leslie, a Frenchman by nationality. She was some years older than Raeburn, and had had three children, but sitter and painter were mutually attracted, and within a few months became man and wife. The handsome fortune she brought her husband was by no means her only recommendation. The marriage was thoroughly happy. One of Christopher North's daughters, Mrs. Ferrier, describes her in her old age as 'a great character,' and all we hear or her agrees with what we see in Raeburn's fine portrait of the 'dear little wife—comely and sweet and wise,' in suggesting a personality both purposeful and charming. Her memory is locally preserved in the name of Ann Street, Edinburgh, the home of Christopher North, De Quincey, and other worthies, which stands on what once was her property, to the south of the Water of Leith.
After their marriage the couple lived for a time at Deanhaugh House, a legacy to Mrs. Raeburn from her first husband. It was afterwards taken down to make room for the extension of Leslie Place. Raeburn spent some years here in the active exercise of his profession, but, as he became more and more alive to defects due to a want of early training, he made up his mind to seek improvement abroad. An introduction to Reynolds confirmed his resolve. Sir Joshua generously recognised the Scottish painter's talent, and strongly advised him to study for a time in Rome, directing his attention more particularly to the works of Michael Angelo in the Sistine Chapel. In after years Raeburn was fond of describing how Sir Joshua, taking him aside at their parting, said, 'Young man, I know nothing of your circumstances; young painters are seldom rich; but if money be necessary for your studies abroad, say so, and you shall not want it.' Of money Raeburn was in no need, but he gratefully accepted introductions from Reynolds to many leading men in Rome, among others to Pompeo Battoni. His countryman, Gavin Hamilton, also proved of service. Raeburn further made friends with the connoisseur and collector, Mr. Byers, to whose advice—that 'he should never paint even the most trifling accessory in his pictures without having the object before Him'—he ascribed a conscientious treatment of detail by no means universal among his contemporaries. After two years of steady work in Rome, he returned to Edinburgh in 1787, and set up his easel in a new studio in George Street. There he soon found himself in the full tide of popularity. David Martin, his former patron, was his only serious rival, as he was also, perhaps, the only person who professed to believe that 'the lad in George Street painted better before he went to Rome.' Martin did not resign his supremacy without a struggle, but his cold conventionalities had little chance against Raeburn's vital and vigorous art, and he had at last to abandon the field to the younger man.
On the death of his brother William in 1788, Raeburn succeeded to the house and property of St. Bernard's at Stockbridge, and thither he moved with his family when about thirty-two. The planning of the new town of Edinburgh suggested the turning to account of some fields in the northern part of his property for a building speculation. They were laid out with houses and gardens, and proved a very successful venture, adding considerably to his income. His studio in George Street was now too small for his increasing circle of clients, and he built himself a large gallery and painting-room in York Place. It is still known as Raeburn House. In the gallery he hung his pictures as they were completed, admitting the public freely to see them.
Raeburn's career of some thirty years as a fashionable portrait-painter was one of unbroken professional and social success. His fine presence, genial manners, shrewd sense, and great conversational powers made him a welcome guest in the brilliant society of his day. A complete collection of his works would make a Scottish national portrait gallery of ideal quality—'a whole army of wise, grave, humorous, capable, or beautiful countenances, painted simply and strongly by a man of genuine instinct.' Robertson, Hume, Monboddo, Boswell, Adam Smith, Braxfield, Christopher North, Lord Newton, Dugald Stewart, John Erskine, Jeffrey, and Walter Scott were of the company, to name but the more famous. Burns is almost the only notable absentee from the roll of his sitters.
Raeburn was in love with his daily task. He used to declare portrait-painting to be the most delightful thing in the world, for every one, he said, came to him in the happiest of moods and with the pleasantest of faces. It is significant, too, of the generous temper he showed to his brother-artists that he described his profession as one that leads neither to discords nor disputes. Of his habits Allan Cunningham gives an interesting account: 'The movements of the artist were as regular as those of a clock. He rose at seven during summer, took breakfast about eight with his wife and children, walked into George Street, and was ready for a sitter by nine; and of sitters he generally had for many years not fewer than three or four a day. To these he gave an hour and a half each. He seldom kept a sitter more than two hours, unless the person happened—and that was often the case—to be gifted with more than common talents. He then felt himself happy, and never failed to detain the one client till the arrival of another intimated that he must be gone. For a head size he generally required four or five sittings; and he preferred painting the head and hands to any other part of the body, assigning as a reason that they required least consideration. A fold of drapery or the natural ease which the casting of a mantle over the shoulder demanded occasioned him more perplexing study than a head full of thought and imagination. Such was the intuition with which he penetrated at once to the mind that the first sitting rarely came to a close without his having seized strongly on the character and disposition of the individual. He never drew in his heads, or indeed any part of the body, with chalk—a system pursued successfully by Lawrence—but began with the brush at once. The forehead, chin, nose, and mouth were his first touches. He always painted standing, and never used a stick for resting his hand on; for such was his accurateness of eye and steadiness of nerve that he could introduce the most delicate touches, or the most mechanical regularity of line, without aid or other contrivance than fair, off-hand dexterity. He remained in his painting-room till a little after five o'clock, when he walked home, and dined at six.' The picture is well completed by Scott's description: 'His manly stride backwards, as he went to contemplate his work at a proper distance, and, when resolved on the necessary point to be touched, his step forward, were magnificent. I see him in my mind's eye, with his hand under his chin, contemplating his picture, which position always brought me in mind of a figure of Jupiter which I have somewhere seen.' It is the attitude in which the artist has painted his own portrait.
Fully occupied in his native city, Raeburn had little time for visits to London. He is said to have paid only three short visits to the capital. An entry in Wilkie's 'Diary' for 12 May 1810 shows, however, that on one of these occasions he came up with an idea of settling. Sir Thomas Lawrence strongly advised him against such a course, and he wisely remained where his position was assured. He was very courteously received by his brother-artists in London, and Wilkie describes an academy dinner where Raeburn 'was asked by Sir William Beechey [q. v.] to sit near the president; his health was proposed by Flaxman, and great attention was paid him.'
It was not until 1814 that Raeburn sent his first contribution to the English academy; he was at once elected an associate, and in the following year a full member. These honours were gained without any sort of canvass. 'They know I am on their list,' he says in a letter to a friend; 'if they choose to elect me it will be the more honourable to me, and I will think the more of it; but if it can only be obtained by means of solicitation and canvassing, I must give up all hopes of it, for I think it would be unfair to employ those means.' In 1822, when George IV paid his famous visit to Edinburgh, Raeburn was one of the citizens singled out for distinction, probably on the initiative of Scott. He was Knighted at Hopetoun House, 'in recognition of his distinguished merit as a painter.' The king was so much struck by his appearance and manner that he is said to have told Scott he would have made him a baronet but for the slur on the memory of Reynolds. In May of the following year he was appointed 'his Majesty's first limner and painter in Scotland,' but he did not long enjoy these honours. A few weeks later he made one of a party to St. Andrews (in the annual archoæological excursion instituted by the chief commissioner, Adam), among his companions being Scott and Miss Edgeworth. He returned to Edinburgh apparently in excellent health and spirits, and resumed his work on his two half-lengths of Scott, one of which he was painting for himself, and the other for Lord Montague. These, as Scott records in his 'Journal' (16 June 1826), were the last canvases he touched. Within a few days he was seized with a mysterious atrophy. His doctors were unable to discover the cause of it, and, after a week of rapid decline, he died on 8 July 1823. He was buried in the episcopal church of St. John's, at the west end of Prince's Street, Edinburgh. His grave is in the 'dormitory' at the east end of the church, within a few yards of passers-by in the street.
At a meeting of the Royal Academy in London, held on 14 July, Sir Thomas Lawrence paid a generous tribute to the memory of the Scottish painter; a more elaborate panegyric was pronounced by Dr. Andrew Duncan in his 'Discourse' to the Harveian Society of Edinburgh in 1824, in which he gave a detailed account of Raeburn's career.
Of Raeburn's work no very complete chronological survey is possible, for he kept no record of his sitters and no accounts of his earnings. The total number of his pictures has been estimated at about six hundred—a number small enough when compared with the thousands recorded in Sir Joshua's pocket-book. But Raeburn's methods did not lend themselves to rapid production. He employed little or no assistance, sending out his pictures with no hand but his own upon the canvas. Brilliant and incisive though his technique was, it involved much thought and care in the actual execution of a picture. As an executant Raeburn deserves the comparison which has been made between him and Velazquez. The principles common to both were carried much further by the great Spaniard, but the resemblance between the two is so considerable that a good Raeburn might fairly be hung beside the less ambitious and elaborate productions of Velazquez. Speaking positively, Raeburn's merits consist in a fine eye for the character and structure of a head, as well as for the essentials of an organic work of art. His conceptions are always simple and well balanced; his colour is usually agreeable; his methods and materials are nearly always sound; his handling has in perfection the expressive breadth and squareness which has since his time been erected into something like a fetish. The conditions under which the Scotsman practised his art were unfavourable to its supreme development, especially as, when we read between the lines of what his contemporaries say of him, we seem to divine a certain indolence in his disposition. Secure almost from the outset in a position that was never seriously contested, knowing little of his great forerunners—for his attention, like that of most travellers to Italy in those days, seems to have been driven into false grooves—he lacked those stimulants to ambition without which a man of his character could never bring out all that was in him. Technically his chief faults are a want of richness and depth in his colour, and an occasional proneness to over-simplify the planes in his modelling of a head.
Raeburn's works are to be found chiefly in the private houses of Scotland. Within the last few years, however, there has been an increasing demand for them among collectors, and in all important exhibitions of works of the British school he has claimed a place little, if at all, below the great triad of English portrait-painters. The two Edinburgh galleries own many fine examples, among them Lord Newton in the National Gallery, and the well-known Niel Gow in the Portrait Gallery. His magnificent full-length of Lord Duncan is in the Trinity House, Leith, his Dr. Nathanial Spens in the Archer's Hall. The pictures which now (1896) represent him in the Louvre and the English National Gallery are all either doubtful or of second-rate quality. Three hundred and twenty-five, including some of the finest and most characteristic, were exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1876.
Raeburn's character was expressed in his manly, dignified, and searching art. His kind and generous disposition made him, we are told, 'one of the best-liked men of his day,' and he lived in close friendship with all that was honourable and distinguished in his native country. An industrious worker, he yet found time for many pursuits and accomplishments. He was an enthusiastic fisherman, golfer, and archer, made occasional essays in architecture, and had a passion for miniature shipbuilding and modelling. 'His conversation', says Scott, 'was rich, and he told his story well.'
His wife outlived him for some ten years. Of their two sons, the elder, Peter, died at the age of nineteen, after having shown signs of considerable artistic gifts. Henry, who inherited the two properties, Deanhaugh and St. Bernard's, further became possessor of the estate of Howden by his marriage with the beautiful Miss White, but finally made his home at Charlesfield, near Mid-Calder. This was the house Dr. John Brown described as 'overrun with the' choicest Raeburns.' Henry Raeburn the younger had seven children, but his sons died without issue, and Charlesfield, with its treasures, passed to his eldest daughter, who, married Sir William Andrew, C.I.E.
Raeburn's best portrait (by himself) is now in the possession of Lord Tweedmouth: it was engraved in stipple by Walker. A marble bust by Thomas Campbell (1822) is the property of the Misses Raeburn, the painter's granddaughters. A medallion, commonly ascribed to James Tassie, is partly by Raeburn himself; it is inscribed 'H. Raeburn, 1792.'
[Life of Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A., by his great-grandson, William Raeburn Andrew, M.A., 1894, with Appendix of pictures exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1876; Allan Cunningham's Lives of British Painters, ed. Heaton; Redgrave's Century of Painters, and Dictionary of Artists of the British School; Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, ed. Graves and Armstrong; Dr. John Brown's Introductory Essay to Elliot's Works of Sir Henry Haeburn, with photographs by T. Annan; Allan Cunningham's Life of Sir David Wilkie: Sir Walter Scott's Journal; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Stevenson's Virginibus Puerisque: an essay on Some Portraits by Raeburn; Catalogue of the Loan Collection of Raeburn's Works at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1878; Catalogues of Exhibitions of Works of the Old Masters at Burlington Home; A Tribute to the Memory of Sir Henry Raeburn, by Dr. Andrew Duncan, being the doctor's discourse to the Harveian Society of Edinburgh for 1824 (Historical Tracts); Catalogue of the National Gallery of Scotland.]