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Art & artists

Recovering Raeburn from ‘artistic isolation’

— June 2013

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Here attributed to Henri-Pierre Danloux, The Revd Robert Walker (‘The Skating Minister’), c. 1798–9, oil on canvas, 76.1x63.5cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation

Edited by Viccy Coltman and Stephen Lloyd

The painter Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) is well known in Scotland but, as the editor make clear, ‘rarely makes more than an episodic appearance in survey exhibitions and has an uneven presence in books about portraiture’ beyond his native land. This new publication ‘seeks to recover Raeburn from his artistic isolation, by looking at his contexts in Scotland, Britain, and abroad, notably in France and the United States’.  And while the editors’ might have slightly over-stated the neglect of Raeburn, the essays here do indeed change the emphasis from the customary Scottish-centred analysis to a very European one.

Despite the interest in Raeburn’s relationship with Europe, it is his relationship with London – and London’s relationship with him – that I found particularly interesting. Raeburn was the first member of the Royal Academy to be resident in Scotland, a novelty signifying the extension northwards of the Academy’s mental as well as geographical world. He had become an Associate in 1812 and a full Academician in 1815, a period when Britain was mainly cut off from Europe owing to war with France, and when Walter Scott’s writing about Scotland was drawing English visitors north.  

Raeburn’s early reception in the United States is fascinating too, where ties with Scotland among American cultural leaders boosted the artist’s reputation and influence, thus posing the question of how well his work might have fared if he had not remained in Scotland, but moved to London like artists such as David Wilkie.   

This short review does not permit a listing of all the various topics, but their varied nature makes for very interesting studies: an investigation into Raeburn’s bankruptcy in 1807; comparisons between his work and that of contemporaries such as Lawrence, David and Goya; his artistic reputation in England, France and North America – and much more. The importance of prints of Raeburn’s work is also examined in detail, this aspect following on from an exhibition on the topic in 2006.

The book covers rather more than art history, and should be of interest to the social, economic and political historian as well as those studying art alone. Like many multi-author academic publications, it is based on a conference organized by the editors (in 2006, to mark the 250th anniversary of the artist’s birth), to which other contributors have now added further studies. As one would expect, it contains some hitherto unpublished material, together with revisionist analysis of earlier historical accounts. The editors have grouped the essays into three sections (Context, Reception and Reputation), prefaced by an Introduction of their own which is a significant chapter in itself. A particularly welcome feature of the book is its numerous, high-quality illustrations.

Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation,  edited by Viccy Coltman and Stephen Lloyd, is published by Edinburgh University Press 2012. 388pp. 70 col illus.  ISBN: 9780748654840 hardback /9780748654833 paperback


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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