Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 47.djvu/164

This page has been validated.

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-