The Scottish Visitors: Reverend Robert Walker

Sir Henry Raeburn 1756–1823, Skating on Duddingston Loch, about 1795. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Purchased 1949 (NG 2112)

Tonya Harding, eat your heart out.

Reverend Walker was a skater of the oldest school, a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, recognized as the first skating club in the world. No sequins, no grueling routines set to Eye of the Tiger, no "kiss and cry," just Edinburgh’s leading citizens showing off their sweetest moves on the ice of Duddingston Loch.  This painting, with a pose inspired by Renaissance sculptor Giambologna’s famed statue of Mercury in flight, is one of Scotland’s most beloved works.

The Reverend is the latest of our Scottish Visitors, and the excerpt below is from the exhibition catalog for Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, available for purchase in the Museum Store.

Sir Henry Raeburn 1756–1823, Skating on Duddingston Loch, about 1795.

This striking portrait of Robert Walker, minister of Edinburgh’s Canongate Church and a leading member of the city’s highly selective skating society, has come to be regarded as one of Sir Henry Raeburn’s greatest works. Raeburn, the leading Scottish portrait painter of his time, was born in the village of Stockbridge, just outside Edinburgh, in 1756. Unlike most of his artistic peers, he received no formal artistic education, instead pursuing normal academic study before being apprenticed to a local goldsmith, James Gilliland, at the age of sixteen. Although the precise circumstances of his choice of career remain unknown, it is likely that he was introduced to the practice of painting portrait miniatures in Gilliland’s workshop and, finding he possessed a natural talent for this work, then graduated to the full-scale oil portraiture for which he has become famous.

Raeburn’s approach to painting reflected this unusual path into his profession. Avoiding the conventions and clichés of his contemporaries, his works were invariably based on close and accurate observation of the external world. He also eschewed the meticulous production of preparatory drawings and sketches characteristic of his academically trained peers, instead preferring to work straight onto the canvas with minimal formal planning. Whilst this approach invariably meant having to deal with compositional changes in the process of painting, it also enabled Raeburn to produce portraits that were unrivalled in their directness and spontaneity.

The modest scale of this image and the subject’s dynamic pose are atypical of Raeburn’s work, and for this reason its attribution has sometimes been doubted. Nevertheless, the painting includes many details that conform closely to the artist’s working methods of the 1790s. Not only are there extensive pentimenti (compositional changes) visible around Walker’s hat, but the sitter’s face – in line with other full-size portraits from this period – has been reduced to a number of almost crystalline, abstract planes.

The picture’s background, too, is characterised by the same economy, with the distant hills suggested by little more than a few deft brushstrokes. Such inventive spontaneity extends to the painting’s foreground, where we find a dense network of hatched lines, scored freely into the paint surface to represent the grooves made by skaters on the ice.

It is, however, the painting’s characteristically bold composition that is primarily responsible for its strong visual impact. Walker is shown in the midst of gliding across the icy surface of one of the small lochs near Edinburgh, his arms folded nonchalantly across his chest and his right leg lifted balletically behind him. The pose, overtly recalling the Renaissance sculptor Giambologna’s famed statue of Mercury in flight, vividly evokes Walker’s mastery of what had become an increasingly popular sporting activity among the city’s social elite. The resulting image is at once the epitome of late-eighteenth-century elegance and a startling prefiguration of the modernistic concern with depicting movement.

Raeburn was a close friend of the Walker family, having been named as one of the nine trustees charged with looking after the minister’s property upon his death in 1808. Walker’s descendants cherished the tradition that Raeburn gave the picture to the sitter’s widow, Jean Walker. Having passed first to her daughter, Margaret Scougall, it was eventually inherited by her great-granddaughter, Beatrix Scott. After being sold privately in 1926, it was offered for sale at auction in 1947, when it was bought by the National Galleries of Scotland at the instigation of its recently appointed director, Sir Ellis Waterhouse, the great scholar and connoisseur of eighteenth-century British painting. -Lucinda Lax

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