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“Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation” edited by Viccy Coltman and Stephen Lloyd

Review of Coltman, V and Lloyd, S (2012) “Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation ″ by William S. Rodner, Old Dominion University (2015) and editor of “Scotia: Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies”

Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation book coverColtman V and Lloyd, S eds. (2012) Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press.  ISBN: 9780748654833 (Pbk) Pp. xviii, 388.  UK £19.99.  US $50.00.  Distributed in USA by Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2013. ISBN: 9780748654840 (Hbk)

Sir Henry Raeburn stood at the center of the art scene in Scotland throughout the late Georgian and Regency periods, and yet his work have been overshadowed as some of his more famous contemporaries, such as Robert Adam, Gavin Hamilton, Alan Ramsay and David Wilkie. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in his art. A major 1997 exhibition in Edinburgh and London provided the opportunity for a thorough reassessment of this Scottish master. This new book of 14 learned essays continues the process of study and review. Henry Raeburn. Context, Reception and Reputation brings together the work of an array of scholars under the editorship of Viccy Coltman (University of Edinburgh) and Stephen Lloyd (the Derby Collection, Merseyside), who also supplies a useful introduction and a chapter on how Raeburn ‘dominated the Scottish art market and patronage for portraits’ (60). Rather than a fully integrated overview, this book offers a variety of specialized insights into the artist and his times.

Raeburn, who lived from 1756 to 1823, produced a body of work that could be said to straddle two cultural eras, the Scottish Enlightenment, reflected in some sober studies (one contemporary English critic remarked that Raeburn made his sitters into philosophers) of members of Edinburgh’s learned and professional classes, and the early Romantic period with the famous paintings of Sir Walter Scott amongst the ruins or ‘The MacNab,’ resplendent in his Highland chief’s garb. A self-portrait of 1815 shows the artist as a confident middle-aged man, with head accented by the strong light from the left, his hand stroking his chin, as if interrupted in thought. The man who would become Scotland’s leading portrait painter had his roots in Edinburgh’s merchant community. Early training in the painting of miniatures and copying loaned portraits was followed by two years of productive study in Rome. Although he resided for a time in London and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy for over thirty years, he made Edinburgh his base, a decision that may have damaged his career by limiting his access to patrons and clients, as well as to the activities of the Academy. Yet there were commissions to be had in the Scottish capital and various marks of recognition were secured, including a knighthood in 1822.

His sitters were a veritable who’s who of Georgian and Regency Scotland—the Earl of Hopetoun, the Duke of Hamilton, Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry and, of course, Walter Scott. The Fergusons of Raith commissioned a number of paintings, including the charming double portrait ‘The Archers’ c. 1789-90, a canvas that begs comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds 1769 study of Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney. Coltman’s chapter devoted to the Hopetoun commission provides an opportunity for assessing the business and practice of portraiture at a time when Raeburn vied for patronage with the likes of Sir Thomas Lawrence, London’s leading portraitist. She offers some valuable insights into the technique of these two artists, with Lawrence cited for a deliberate layered process of ‘drawing with chalk overlaid with oils,’ in contrast to Raeburn’s ‘intuitive practice ….painting immediately onto canvas.’ (98) As Olivier Meslay explains in a later chapter, it was this naturalness that would come to be much admired by French commentators when they applauded Raeburn’s ‘spontaneity and his frankness…the swiftness of his brush and his “brave” way of painting.’ (347)

Godfrey Evans presents an exhaustive discussion of one of Raeburn’s most important commissions, the portrait of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton. Copious background information is provided, including material regarding the Duke’s extravagant tastes and many projects, such as the extensive work undertaken on Hamilton Palace. While much of this has little to do with Raeburn or the commission, it does illustrate something about the artist/client relationship at the time of Britain’s wars with France. Impervious to charges of disloyalty to his country, the Whig- Francophile Duke managed to commission Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s favorite painter, to create the famous Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries. Here the particulars of patronage emerge with clarity in Evans’ observation on how Hamilton gave David ‘a free hand over the portrait of Napoleon’ while denying Raeburn ‘artistic independence’(135). Evidently the Duke preferred David’s meticulous, detailed technique, rather than Raeburn’s looser, less Classical, style. Raeburn’s finished portrait had a tortured history. Hamilton was an erratic sitter but the painting was eventually completed and placed in the Hamilton Palace. It was subsequently sold, only to be later repurchased for the Douglas family.

Raeburn’s open approach, evidently so distressing to Hamilton, could be seen as one aspect of a British reaction to French stylistic practice. David and his followers were condemned by no less than John Constable for ‘their stern and heartless petrification.’ (219) Philippe Bordes’ chapter ‘The Critique of the Modern French School of Painting from Reynolds to Constable’ charts the various strands of this opinion but makes only limited reference to Raeburn save for mention of his ‘hostility to the polished manner ascribed to David and his school.’ (213)

Many of Raeburn’s portraits were reproduced as prints. Painters often translated their work into prints as a way of reaching a wider audience. Engravings and mezzotints enhanced Raeburn’s reputation both in Britain and abroad. David Alexander points out how mezzotints, in particular, spread the artist’s fame up through the first decades of the twentieth century. Yet it would have been useful to know more than what is presented in Stana Nenadic’s otherwise informative chapter about Raeburn’s relationship to those who engraved his work. Did he supervise these craftsmen; did he insist on retouching the plates prior to publication?

Several chapters approach other topics with varying degrees of success. The female portraits receive welcome reevaluation by Jordan Mearns and Helen E. Smailes presents a provocative discussion of the sculptor Thomas Campbell and his fine 1822 bust of Raeburn. Sarah Symmons’ attempt to link Raeburn to his contemporary Francisco Goya—‘two relative outsiders from the age of Revolution and Regency’ –remains elusive however. Both artists may have charted innovative approaches to portraiture, and both owed a debt to Velazquez. But the parallels are not remarkable. Goya, of course, created an art with a far greater range, a fact Symmons concedes: ‘Unlike Goya, Raeburn was not a Romantic master obsessed by powerful themes of history, war and injustice’ (281).

More successful is the offering on Raeburn’s connection to America. Robyn Asleson traces Raeburn’s popularity with American Scots mindful of their heritage. Two striking portraits of Peter Van Burgh Livingston, scion of a prominent Scottish-American family, attest to this link. One of this pair, along with Raeburn’s portrait of Lady Belhaven, came into the collection of the New York Public Library, an institution championed by James Lenox, son of a prominent Scottish merchant immigrant, who, incidentally, acquired America’s first canvas by J.M.W. Turner, the turbulent coastal scene in the western Hebrides, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave.

What of Raeburn’s ‘Scottishness; ‘ of his connection to the culture of kilts and sporrans, Enlightenment progress, Highland romance? In fact, there is little to indicate a specifically national sensibility operating in his art. Many Scots migrated to England but it is doubtful that there was a Scottish school perceived there, at least not until the Walter Scott mania took hold after the second decade of the nineteenth century. Nicholas Tromans, author of a solid study of David Wilkie, downplays any ‘Scottishness’ in the English critical commentary on Raeburn. Scottish subjects were not the exclusive property of Scottish painters. One of Raeburn’s ‘magisterial Highland chieftans,’ ‘The MacNab’ of 1819, was ‘entirely eclipsed by Martin Archer Shee’s [born in Ireland] portrait of James Munro Macnabb in full Highland costume’ (182) that same year. At most there could be the perception that Raeburn was something of an outsider given his preference for Edinburgh over London. As Matthew Craske reminds us, if anything, Raeburn was celebrated by Allan Cunningham, his first biographer, for his ‘Britishness,’ something befitting the heightened nationalism born of the recent and victorious struggle against French radicalism.

Overall, these essays offer thoughtful and often provocative assessments of Raeburn’s art, the context of his times and his place in British cultural history. They attest to the current vitality of Raeburn studies–scholarship soon to be augmented by a modern, full-scale catalogue of Raeburn’s paintings.

William S. Rodner (2015)

Department of History
College of Arts and Letters
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA  23529-0336

Scotia: Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies