Sir Henry Raeburn lived from 4 March 1756 to 8 July 1823. He was one of Scotland's leading artists, becoming especially well known for his portrait work. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Raeburn was born in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, the son of businessman. He was orphaned as a boy and went on to be educated at Heriot's Hospital, now George Heriot's School. At the age of 15 he left school to begin an apprenticeship with an Edinburgh goldsmith. Here he demonstrated considerable skill painting decoration on ivory insets in jewellery. From these it was only a short step to the production of portrait miniatures: and Raeburn soon moved on to full size oil paintings, something in which he was entirely self-taught. His employer introduced Raeburn to David Martin, who at the time was Edinburgh's leading portrait painter. Martin encouraged Raeburn's work, helping him by lending him portraits to copy.
Within a fairly short period of time, Raeburn was earning a good living as a portrait artist. In 1784 he was commissioned to produce a portrait of the young widow of John Leslie, 11th Earl of Rothes, who had died the previous year. Within a month they were married. Marrying a rich widow brought Raeburn a freedom of action he had never known before, and with his new wife he departed for Italy to gain a better understanding of the history and breadth of art. En route he met Sir Joshua Reynolds in London, who advised him on what to study in Rome, and gave him letters of introduction to many eminent people in the Italian art scene of the day.
The Raeburns returned to Edinburgh in the summer of 1786 and Henry returned to his portrait paintings, now able to add his newly acquired technical competence to his natural flair and enthusiasm. After his one foray abroad, Raeburn spent most of the rest of his life in Edinburgh, only occasionally visiting London, in marked contrast to many of his Scottish contemporaries who felt they had to move south to develop successful careers. One result of this was that Henry Raeburn was never as well known outside Scotland as his skill deserved. Another, however, was that he became hugely influential amongst Scottish artists in the early years of the 1800s.
Raeburn also benefitted from the large number of wealthy patrons then living in Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott, Hugh Blair, Henry Mackenzie, Woodhouselee, Robertson, John Home, Robert Fergusson, and Dugald Stewart were all amongst his clients. Particularly noteworthy portraits included those of Rev Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood; Dr Wardrop of Torbane Hill; two full-lengths of Adam Rolland of Gask; William Macdonald of St Martin's; and the paintings of Lord Newton and Dr Alexander Adam now on show in the National Gallery of Scotland. It has sometimes been suggested that Raeburn was less good with female subjects, but a number of his portraits of women, including a full length portrait of his wife, are generally regarded as of very high quality.
In 1812 Raeburn was elected president of the Society of Artists in Edinburgh. And in 1814 he was elected an associate, and in the following year a full member of, the Royal Scottish Academy. During the same period he was actively engaged in the development of Stockbridge, on land he owned just north west of the centre of Edinburgh. In 1822 Raeburn was knighted by George IV and appointed the Royal Limner for Scotland. He died in Edinburgh in July of the following year.
Despite being less well known than he should have been outside Scotland during his own lifetime, Sir Henry Raeburn is now generally recognised as a world class portrait painter. The painting by which he is best known today is one that was almost unknown until it was purchased by the National Gallery of Scotland in 1949. His portrait of the Rev Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch is usually simply known as The Skating Minister. Today it is one of Scotland's best known paintings (despite unproven claims it was actually painted by the French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux) and something of a Scottish cultural icon. So iconic was it that the Catalan architect of the magnificent new Scottish Parliament building, Enric Miralles, designed the building, one of the repeating patters he used was said to be based on the outline of the Raeburn's painting of the minister.