|Reverend Robert Walker (1755 - 1808) skating on Duddingston Loch |
oil on canvas, 76.2 cm x 63.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery
|Merchandise at stake - the Scottish National Gallery shop in 2004|
|The Scottish Parliament building: the windows of the Members' office accommodation |
are widely thought to echo the silhouette of the Skating Minister.
Although Stephen Lloyd's revisions have been widely accepted , he has a knowledgable and well- respected opponent in David Thomson, retired Director of the National Portrait Gallery and the foremost expert on Raeburn. The chief organiser of the 1997 exhibition, in 2004 Dr Thomson co-authored a popular study of the Skating Minister for the Galleries. He has been seconded by a younger specialist Dr David Mackie, who is currently preparing a catalogue raisonnée of Raeburn's work. Thomson's views were widely canvassed in the Scottish press and in July 2006 he replied to Lloyd in the Burlington Magazine.
Provenance of the picture
There is no reason to doubt the traditional identification of the skater as the Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808), minister of the Canongate Kirk and member of the Edinburgh Skating Society, which met regularly to skate on the frozen lochs of Duddingston or Lochend. However, there is no record at all of the painting itself before 1902. In 1914 it was offered for sale at Christie's by Beatrix Scott, Dr Walker's great-granddaughter,but failed to make the reserve of £1,000. The art historian James Grieg noted in his papers at the time that it was "not a Raeburn". In 1949 it was auctioned by Christie's in a sale of "Sporting pictures and paintings" and acquired for the National Galleries for the comparatively modest sum of £525. The then Director of the Galleries Sir Ellis Waterhouse was confident the painting was by Raeburn and professed himself well-pleased. In Dr Lloyds' view, however, the low price realised suggests that other buyers remained doubtful.
The vendor in 1949 was a Miss Lucy Hume from Bournemouth who had purchased the painting from Beatrix Scott in 1926 for £700. A letter from her lawyer contains a typed memo from Beatrix Scott, which provides the crucial statement of provenance:
The portrait was painted by Raeburn in 1784. I have always understood that Raeburn considered it his masterpiece, the pose being so good and the lovely frosty atmosphere of the sky and the ice with all the marks of the skates. Dr Walker was a great skater. On his death, Sir Henry Raeburn gave the picture to his widow, my great-grandmother. After her death, it came to my mother.
The tradition that Walker and Raeburn were friends is confirmed by the minister's will drawn up in 1798 which nominates Raeburn as one of the nine trustees appointed to look after his estate. There is no mention of the painting in the list of items bequeathed to his son John.
It's a piece of evidence that one has to handle very, very carefully. To me, this description is very over-specific. There are statements about it being given by Raeburn to Walker's widow; there's all the business of the 'hissing' ice. It's a rather too elaborate description for an 80-year old woman. To me, it sounds like a sales pitch. [quoted in The Herald, 20 Aug 2006]
If not Raeburn, then who else? There were various other Scottish portraitists working in Edinburgh at this time - David Allan, Alexander Nasmyth, Archibald Skirving. According to Dr Lloyd only the latter was sufficiently accomplished to have created the Skating Minister, but is excluded because he worked almost exclusively in pastels. Unfortunately, there is no documentation at all to connect the work with Danloux either - though the dates are possible. Danloux emigrated to London in 1792 and settled among the French colony in Soho where he set himself up successfully as a portrait painter. He is known to have travelled to Edinburgh in 1796, 1797 and 1798 where he painted the comte d'Artois and his family, in comfortable exile in Holyroodhouse, as well as various society figures, such as Admiral Duncan.
Danloux kept a detailed journal of the comings and goings of the émigré community and his English clients. This is published, but not accessible on the internet - It does not mention Walker, but it would be nice to get a feel of how inclusive his record really was. There is also a bit of an unanswered question about the dating of the portrait. Most art historians, including David Thomson, favour a date in the mid-1790s, which would coincide with Danloux's presence in Edinburgh. 1784, the date given by Beatrix Scott, is too early even for Raeburn, who only returned to Scotland from Rome in 1786. Walker was active in the Skating Society for a long period, from 1780 into the 1800s, so that is no real help. He was born in 1755, so in the mid-1790s he would have been forty, which looks about the age of the man the portrait. Walker is in his clerical attire, but a costume historian could also surely date that stock and hat; to me, the dress certainly looks consistent with the 1790s.
Style and composition
With so little documentation, argument inevitably centres on the work itself. There are various technical considerations which cast doubt on the attribution to Raeburn:
- The picture is unusually small for a Raeburn (76.2 cm x 63.50 cm). Dr Lloyd describes it as a '"cabinet" composition'.
- It uses a traditional type of canvas whereas Raeburn preferred canvas with a herringbone weave
- The surface has developed an irregular craquelure which is not found in Raeburn's other oils.
- The painting was subjected to x-ray analysis. The results, published for the first time in 2013, showed an absence of the lead-white underpaint which Raeburn generally used in the flesh of his sitters.
"The x-rays show that the lead-white paint which Raeburn commonly used to 'underpaint' his works shows up in the ice, landscape and sky of the painting but nowhere in the face. This is utterly alien to the typically rough and expressive application of this key pigment in the underpainting of the faces in Raeburn's portraits" [Lloyd, quoted in The Scotsman, 20 Jan 2013]
The style and brushwork are also atypical. Dr Lloyd notes that Raeburn's painting after 1786, is characterised by dramatic lighting effects, deep shadows, rich colour and a loose handling of paint. The Skating Minister in contrast is carefully drawn, the palette muted and there is a virtual absence of shadow.
More telling still is the composition itself. Raeburn virtually never depicted figures in motion in this way. The graceful skater is skilfully captured in perfect balance, with one leg behind his body. On the other hand, there are several parallels in Danloux's work. Indeed, Dr Lloyd's attention was first drawn to Danloux by the pose of the officer in the background of Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan, painted in 1798, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
He has subsequently identified a number of other parallels. This, for example is Danloux's portrait of the famous émigré courtesan Rosalie Duthé, painted in 1792.
Here is one of two cabinet size portraits of officers in the Dumfriesshire militia painted by for Charles, Earl of Dalkeith during Danloux's time in Scotland:
|Sergeant Stevenson of the Dumfriesshire militia |
99.1cm x73.6 cm
Dr Lloyd's opponents have produced various counter-arguments:
- The technical objections are not decisive. Although the small scale is unusual, it is not unparalleled in Raeburn's works - the painting was after all an intimate gift to a friend rather than a formal commission. Raeburn also occasionally used canvas without the herringbone twill. The absence of white lead underpainting was more of a problem. Duncan Thomson emphasised that Raeburn may have been open to new techniques: “I’m not sure how significant it is,” he said. “It’s like horse meat in beefburgers. It doesn’t change the look and it doesn’t change the taste.” [Let's hope McDonalds doesn't take that line....]
- Some aspects of the painting are highly characteristic of Raeburn: the repainted angle of Walker's hat, the presence of lines scored with the wrong end of the brush; the scuffed pink paint used for the cheeks. The way the coat shines through the white material of his cravat is "absolutely typical Raeburn".
- The novelty of the pose is an argument for rather than against it being by Raeburn. Raeburn was open to different influences and experimented with different compositions during his time in Scotland, especially in the mid 1790s. One suggested parallel is The Skater by Rhode Island artist Gilbert Stuart, painted in Westminister in 1782, though there is no direct evidence that Raeburn knew this work. [seeThe Scotsman, 5 June 2005]
Where does this leave us?
With the experts so at odds, this is a difficult one. At the National Galleries in Edinburgh opposition to the reattribution seems to have hardened. The current exhibition Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860 at the newly rennovated National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh features Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan. According to a review: "Although the iconic “Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” was once attributed by Stephen Lloyd, former curator at the SNPG, to the talented portrait-painter, the official line at the Galleries is now that this is undoubtedly the work of Raeburn. "[BooksandIdeas.net, 13 Sept 2018]
On the other hand, the balance of scholarship is with Dr Lloyd. In 2012 he edited a collection of essays on Raeburn with Viccy Coltman, professor of 18th-century History of Art University of Edinburgh. In this he published his x-ray findings for the first time, prompting a new, more favourable, round of articles in the press. In 2012 he also publicised his views in an article on Raeburn for the ArtUk website.
Lloyd's supporters include Sir Timothy Clifford, Director of the Scottish Galleries until 2006, and Alistair Laing, the former Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust. Laing had been struck for a long time by the likeness of the Skating Minister to Danloux's portrait of Rosalie Duthé:
Certainly, people had treated the picture for some time with doubt, but I had never seen anyone's name associated with it, " he told the Sunday Herald.
It was a Raeburn exhibition in Edinburgh and London in 1997-98 that sparked Laing's doubts. "It was only when I went to the Raeburn exhibition in 1997 that Danloux occurred to me, and I did say it to some people but never did anything about it. It was just a hunch, backed up by my knowledge of the two artists.'' The active figure reminded Laing of a painting by Danloux of Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthe hanging a painting: "He was good at showing a graphic, active figure performing, which is unusual in British and French painting of the era.
"With the skater, you really feel the motion, and Mlle Duthe showed Danloux had that kind of imagination not to portray a classical position, or the accepted norms of genteel behaviour. It is the scale of a number of his works and he was in Edinburgh at the right time to have painted the picture." [quoted in The Herald, 17 April 2005]
Particularly telling is the agreement of experts on 18th-century French painting, such as Colin Bailey at the Frith Collection and above all Olivier Meslay, the Louvre's specialist on British paintings and the foremost authority on Danloux. Meslay, it would seem, had kept quiet for diplomatic reasons:
"It would be tricky that it is a Frenchman who is about to say - in front of Scots - that this is not by Raeburn, by your Scottish artist, but by a Frenchman, " he told the Sunday Herald yesterday.
Meslay's political sensitivity got the better of him. "I found it embarrassing - it would be like a Scot coming to say that the most beautiful painting by David [the French neoclassical painter and revolutionary] in the Louvre was by Raeburn. [The Herald, art. cit]
In his 2012 book, Dr Lloyd even reported agreement from Pierre Rosenberg, whom he met at a conference; the doyen of French art history commented, "that the Danloux attribution was absolutely right and that the picture could never have been painted by Raeburn". [see The Scotsman, 20 Jan 2013.]
The lack of documentary evidence is, however, still a major stumbling block.
In January 2013 the Times reported that Dr Lloyd had appealed to owners of Scottish private collections for help to trace a new Raeburn portrait of the Revd Walker. Raeburn is known to have painted at least twenty portraits of clergymen, including one of the Revd Walter Buchanan now in a private collection. The portrait Dr Lloyd wants is a similar conventional image, "a formal head-and-shoulders image of Walker in clerical uniform with black robes, white collar and powdered hair". The article states only that there is "evidence that such a portrait of Walker was auctioned" but it is not clear what this evidence is or how it relates to the provenance of the Skating Minister. [Times, 21 Jan 2013]
Personally, I think it is worth standing back for a moment and asking what it is which makes this little picture so appealing and so suited as a modern Scottish national symbol? It is surely the Reverend's pose, private and purposeful but at the same time slightly playful, gliding over the ice with an unself-conscious kick of the back leg. It is a perfect image of a man of the late Enlightenment - and so very.....well, Danloux.
This small picture, showing a figure in action, is quite unlike other known portraits by Raeburn.
Notice for The Skating Minister on the National Galleries of Scotland website:
It was in the mid-1790s that his inventiveness, which might have had a freer rein in a different climate, led him to paint the unique little full length of his skating friend, the Revd Robert Walker, better known as The Skating Minister (NG Scot.). Its combination of poise, precision, and humour have made it by far Raeburn's most famous painting; indeed, by a quirk of taste, since its virtual rediscovery in 1949 it has gained a degree of popularity unique in British art.
David Thomson, Dictionary of National Biography online - Entry for Raeburn by David Thomson, last revised 2008
The most famous painting associated with Raeburn, depicting Reverend Dr Robert Walker (1755–1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch, also known as ‘The Skating Minister’ a damaged and restored work acquired cheaply at auction in 1949 by the Scottish National Gallery, has long had its attribution doubted by many observers on account of its unusual small-scale format and the artificially balletic posture of the silhouetted figure gliding over the frozen loch. I have argued elsewhere (The Burlington Magazine, July 2005) that a more likely painter of this sporting portrait is the versatile French émigré artist, Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was active in Scotland during the late 1790s. Recent images of the picture taken with x-radiography and infrared reflectography certainly demonstrate emphatically that the painting is utterly alien to Raeburn’s normal mode of underpainting, where lead white paint is heavily used to lay in the facial features, and which is mostly absent in ‘The Skating Minister’. The vast majority of independent authorities on European painting around 1800 reject the traditional Raeburn attribution and are supportive of the proposed Danloux re-attribution.
Stephen Lloyd "Artist in focus: Henry Raeburn" ArtUK website, post of 25 Oct 2012
The two articles from the Burlington Magazine are available in full on JStor:
Stephen Lloyd, "'Elegant and graceful attitudes': The painter of the 'Skating Minister', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 147, no. 1228, July 2005 p.474-486 [available on JStor]
Thomson, Duncan. “Raeburn Revisited: The 'Skating Minister'.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 149, no. 1248, 2007, p. 185–190.
Articles in the Scottish press:
"Experts confess: we always suspected this wasn't a Raeburn: doubts over iconic work kept quiet for years", The Herald 17 April 2005
Raeburn expert to the rescue of striken skater. The Scotsman 17 April 2005
"Family records 'prove' skater is Raeburn's" The Scotsman 29 April 2005
"Inspiration for Raeburn's skating minister was American artist" The Scotsman 5 June 2005Tim Cornwell, "Henry Raeburn's Skating Minister on thin ice after x-ray study", The Scotsman, 20 January 2013.
"On thin ice" The Herald, 20 August 2006
"On thin ice" The Herald, 20 August 2006
"Mystery over Raeburn prompts a hunt for his missing minister", The Times, 21 January 2013 ,
"X-rays suggest Skating Minister 'not by Raeburn'", BBC News, post of 23 January 2013
Clarisse Godard Desmarest, "Scotland: Nation, Enlightenment and Empire
The Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860, an exhibition presented in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 16 June 2018 – 27 June 2021", BooksandIdeas.net, 13 September 2018.