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Painter and entrepreneur Henry Raeburn

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The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, 1784, by Henry Raeburn
Image: National Galleries of Scotland

When the weather turned cold - a friend of David's saw scores of children and adults skating on Beaulieu River last week - I remembered the skating reverend by Edinburgh painter Henry Raeburn. The artist's turbulent fortunes - and his response to them - might interest you in these unsettled economic times.

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The portrait of Margaritta Macdonald (Mrs Scott Moncrieff), 1814, is more typical of works Henry created later in his career, which were usually painted indoors and dramatically lit by an ingenious shutter arrangement of his own invention. She was painted when he had reached desperate financial straits. Image: National Galleries of Scotland

Henry was the son of a yarn boiler. Born in 1756, a mile northwest of Edinburgh Castle, he lost both his parents before he was ten. His older brother took care of him, and Henry entered George Heriot's Hospital, a school founded by a jeweller for the education of the orphaned children of tradesmen. The nine-year-old boy made a long, uphill trek from his home to "the immense, four-square building, which is still one of the most impressive in Edinburgh" (Oxford DNB).

They didn't waste time then. Henry learned all his academic studies, and was apprenticed to a goldsmith when he was sixteen. He graduated to painting miniatures, and in his twenties developed the immense skills necessary to paint life-sized portraits. This dry sentence doesn't convey his ecstasy at finding that he could bring beauty to life on canvas, even beauty that was silent and hidden.

One of the immensely sympathetic things about Henry Raeburn is that his imagination was set alight by some sitters, but "This bore no relation to their worldly status and some of his most sympathetic portraits are of women neither beautiful nor young" (Oxford DNB).

The story that he fell in love with his wife Ann while painting her is true. Henry fell in love with the wealthy older widow when he painted her portrait, married her and became the stepfather of two daughters and the father of two sons.

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Ann Raeburn, detail. Private collection.

It might be viewed as selfish, it was certainly daring when Henry left soon after his youngest son was born to tour Italy and teach himself more about art. He was determined to succeed. Artistic friends in Rome and London shared their collections of art with him, he made scores of sketches and he learned an enormous amount about lighting before returning home. In Edinburgh, Henry made his family rich with his work and was rich in friends, including Sir Walter Scott. He built reception rooms, a picture gallery and a big studio with specially designed lighting. He continued to paint by sketching directly with his brush on canvas and always with the living person before him, never from memory or sketches.

How Henry proceeded to lose everything and what he did about it is a salutary tale.

Edinburgh was not called "the Athens of the North" for nothing. The tag referred to arts and inventions and to Edinburgh's world trade - ancient Athens was also the centre of a maritime empire. Despite the dislike of academics for the mercantile world, artists and art could not survive without entrepreneurs. However, it might have been better if Henry had avoided becoming one himself.

Somehow Henry, bursting with energy, became involved in a shipping enterprise. Many succeeded. His failed spectacularly. Before the age of bail-outs, the dreary consequence was that "in January 1808 he was forced to seek a sequestration of his ‘whole means and estate heritable and moveable’ and his bankruptcy was announced in the Edinburgh Gazette" (Oxford DNB).

To pay off his creditors, Raeburn pledged himself to pay all his debts until "the trembling hand of age" and death overtook him. And that is what he did.

Rather different from those people today who waltz away from their debts, the most famous being Timothy Geithner, nominee for US Treasury Secretary, who didn't pay his taxes but pocketed the money his company gave him for the taxes. What did he do with that money? We know what Henry did.

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He painted up a storm so he could pay back what he owed.
George Drummond, his sister Margaret,and his foster brother, 1808-09
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Raeburns lived as frugally as they could, though Ann couldn't resist replacing their lost furniture, and the married stepdaughters became livid when their mother gave their brother an expensive wedding present.

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Sir Walter Scott, 1822. One of a number of gorgeous portraits that Henry painted. Scott always remained a friend.
Image: National Galleries of Scotland

Meanwhile, Henry's entrepreneurial spirit remained unquashed, and his fortunes began to rise. In 1817 he had terrace houses built. Ann Street, one of the loveliest streets in classical Edinburgh, was the result. In 1822, 14 years after the collapse of his fortunes, Henry was named king's painter and knighted by George IV. Alas, it was not to last.

On the day following the ceremony, the painter and his wife gave a dinner party for a number of friends at St Bernard's House, within a virtual stone's throw of his much humbler place of birth. Among the guests were Sir Adam Ferguson, who had been knighted at the same time, and the artists William Collins and David Wilkie. In a letter to his sister, Wilkie described the boisterous evening of toasts and song - Raeburn ‘made a very modest reply’ to one of the toasts, and Lady Raeburn - despite her erstwhile liking of a ‘little show’—‘would not allow herself to be called My Lady on any account’ (Oxford DNB).

I like this couple.

Henry died less than a year later in 1823. For a long time his artistic reputation went into eclipse.

Then, as the DNB explains, Denys Sutton, writing in the journal Apollo in the 1990s, asserted that Raeburn's qualities as a painter were "of such importance that they deserved to be re-examined in depth. . .In 2001 the National Gallery acquired its first painting by Raeburn, the double portrait known as The Archers - the kind of recognition in London which the painter had always craved" - 178 years after his death.

But never mind. Henry Raeburn loved life.

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