The following article was submitted by David Mackie, University of Cambridge, regarding the recent acqusition of Sir Henry Raeburn's Portrait of John, Lord Swinton.
When Sean O’Harrow, as the new Executive Director of the Figge Art Museum, approached me to asked if a Raeburn portrait might be found for his first major acquisition in his new post, there was no doubt that a suitable, fine painting would turn up. But it never crossed my consciousness that the Figge would become the owner of a major new Raeburn portrait, one of extraordinary psychological power, from a crucial point in the artist’s career, a painting which was previously unknown to any Raeburn scholar, but that is what has happened.
Raeburn became a highly popular artist among wealthy American collectors shortly after World War I, when his paintings could be purchased only by important industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick and bankers such as Lehman Brothers, who paid astonishing prices for the pictures, drawing them out of old Scottish houses where they had hung for a century or more. With the 1929 Crash, interest in Raeburn dried up and scholarship was more or less dormant until the end of the last century when the Complete Catalogue of Raeburn was written by this author. The history of the artist was first established by Sir James L. Caw as a young man and published by Sir Walter Armstrong in 1901. Caw believed that Raeburn had been a prodigy who had painted full-length portraits at the age of twenty in 1776. The new history of Raeburn disproved this and showed that Raeburn became an artist only quite late in life, after a trip to Rome during the years 1784-1786, by which time he was thirty. Raeburn’s father was a business man who owned a linen works in their home village of Stockbridge, on the edge of Edinburgh. When still very young the future artist’s father died and Raeburn entered a school for fatherless boys, George Heriot’s Hospital, which had been founded by a goldsmith and which consequently had strong links with the goldsmith’s trade in Edinburgh. The school paid the young Raeburn’s apprenticeship fees and he trained in jewellery and goldsmithing for at least seven years. Raeburn got further encouragement in his artistic training from an etcher, David Deuchar and had some further help from a portraitist working in Edinburgh, David Martin. But the early years of Raeburn’s artistic life remain vague. He married a wealthy older woman and in the mid 1780s, went off alone to Rome, where he moved in the circle of powerful and well-placed Scotsmen such as James Byres, a famous guide and dealer, and that man’s Italian colleagues in the Roman art world, such as the distinguished portraitist and religious painter, Pompeo Batoni. Raeburn’s independent career began only in 1787 on his return to Edinburgh, where he set up a studio in George Street. It is there that Lord Swinton sat to the artist, almost immediately on the artist’s return from Rome, somewhere between 1787 and 1789. This new painting is then a highly important addition to our knowledge of the artist at this crucial point in his life. Raeburn’s private papers have not come down to us and dating a portrait is difficult. Nobody since Raeburn’s death in 1823 had been able to date his paintings until the Complete Catalogue was written. It is still not easy to do so, but the style of this portrait is almost identical to that of a painting done in 1787 of Lord Swinton’s fellow judge and colleague Robert Dundas, Lord Arniston (Mackie number 241, private coll., Lothians, Scotland).
John Swinton, later Lord Swinton, was the eldest of the twelve children of John Swinton of Swinton, Berwickshire, advocate (a lawyer who could plead in Scotland’s Supreme Court), and his wife Mary, daughter of Samuel Semple, minister of Liberton, a village outside Edinburgh. The sitter was born in 1723, some years after the Union of Scotland with England. In 1743 Swinton was admitted advocate, like his father, and eleven years later was made sheriff-depute of Perthshire. His ability was recognised and he was elevated to the bench (became a senior judge) in 1782, but long before then he had produced a number of brief legal texts for which he is still remembered and they are listed in the two short biographical articles devoted to him by R.B. Swinton and L.A. Ritchie. The first text was A Free Disquisition Concerning the Law of Entails in Scotland (1765) where he opposed the unfortunate consequences of entails on business and commerce. In 1779 he argued for the adoption of a uniform system of weights and measures throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom in A Proposal for Uniformity of Weights and Measures in Scotland, which incorporated tables of conversion. But his most significant publication dates from much the same date as the Figge’s portrait. In 1789 he published Considerations concerning a proposal for dividing the court of session into classes or chambers and for limiting litigation in small causes and for the revival of jury trial in certain civil actions, which indicates a deep knowledge of the English legal system and a tendency to favour the adoption by the Scottish courts of some of its better elements. The sitter’s writings reveal him to have had a highly original forensic mind and one of Lord Swinton’s colleagues, the Honourable Henry Erskine of Almondell (1746-1817), who also sat to Raeburn for a popular and much repeated portrait (Mackie number 266, numerous versions), had Swinton’s writings reissued to more effect in 1807. In 1788 Swinton was made lord of justiciary and this is the probable date of the portrait, when his career was at its high tide and his fine mind was working with great originality, creating the future structure of his country’s legal system. As with so many distinguished paintings from this period, there is a strong connection, which is surely not coincidental, between the sitter and the family circle of John Mitchelson of Middleton, or his legal practice. In this case, on 23 June 1758 the sitter had married John Mitchelson’s daughter, Margaret (d. 1812), by whom he had six sons and seven daughters. Many people in Mitchelson of Middleton’s circle, often ambitious young lawyers and their beautiful young wives, employed Raeburn during these exciting years of the artist’s late-starting new career.
The sitter is believed to be wearing the robes of lord commissioner of the high court of justiciary and sittings probably took place in 1788, the year of his promotion, or shortly afterwards. Some would like the development and dating of Raeburn’s portraits in that period to be more straightforward than is in fact the case. Of importance here is the first portrait painted by Raeburn on his return from Rome to Edinburgh, Robert Dundas, Lord Arniston, mentioned above. The Arniston portrait is unusually isolated stylistically at that crucial date when it was painted, 1787, and it is quite distinct from such works as Cornet Lyon and David Hunter of Blackness (Mackie numbers 474 and 414, both coll. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) both of 1788. The Lord Swinton, unlike the two above mentioned, shows some parallels, however, with the Arniston portrait in the dizzying facility of the brush in the forms and highlights of the robes, yet the structure of the face has nothing in common with that of the Cornet Lyonor the Rear-Admiral Inglis, (Mackie number 419) both of 1788. In short, we have a portrait of c. 1788 which does not much resemble other portraits of that year but does resemble the first portrait painted in 1787, shortly after the artist’s return to Edinburgh. These inconsistencies are not easily explained in Raeburn’s art.
The portrait’s great distinction lies is in its psychological power, which takes the painting into quite a different realm from most legal portraits. The moribund Lord Arniston died a few weeks after sitting to Raeburn (13 December 1787) and the portrait has a little of this psychological impact. David Hunter of Blackness has somewhat more, but not in a sharp key. The Figge’s portrait displays a menacing and seemingly merciless acuity of vision which exceeds even that found in some of El Greco’s frightening clergymen and Goya’s self-serving courtiers. The present writer’s views that the artistic origins of Raeburn lie in continental Europe, in the art of the Baroque, especially in Rome, have often been dismissed out of hand and the old view that Reynolds was the sole influence on Raeburn have been reasserted. Could an artist using Reynolds as a source really reach the heights of psychological penetration displayed here? Surely it is Raeburn’s studies in Rome that developed his natural gifts. Henry Cockburn’s remarks on his legal contemporaries are always worth considering. He said of Lord Swinton: “It is only a subsequent age that has discovered his having possessed a degree of sagacity, for which he did not get credit while he lived.” Raeburn did not make that mistake. The reforming of legal structures in Scotland as advocated by Swinton did eventually take place, and Cockburn concluded but they were mere visions in his [Swinton’s] time; and his anticipation of them, in which, so far as I ever heard, he had no associate, is very honourable to his thoughtfulness and judgement. That is the powerful, cold, sharp mind Raeburn shows us. Lord Swinton’s contemporaries may have been self-deceived in their assessment of him. Raeburn was not.
Lord Swinton held office until he died in 1799 at his home, Dean House, Stockbridge, neighbouring Sir Henry Raeburn’s home, St Bernard’s, a few yards away, both in the vicinity of the linen works created by the artist’s father and long operated by his elder brother.
In recent years, major portraits by Raeburn have been acquired by important galleries throughout the world. The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX., purchased the ‘Allen Boys of Errol’; the National Gallery, London, acquired the ‘Ferguson Boys of Raith’; the Louvre, Paris, purchased ‘Major James Lee Harvey’; and the Prado, Madrid, purchased ‘Mrs Maclean of Kinlochaline’, (Mackie numbers 20, 275, 371 and 508 respectively). This is an unusual reversal, because in the 1970s and later, many museums sold important paintings by the artist. Along with the Director and the Trustees of the Figge Art Museum, I hope the people of Quad Cities and visitors to the Museum will enjoy Sir Henry Raeburn’s “Lord Swinton” for many generations.
To find out more about our latest acquisition, read the following article by David Mackie, University of Cambridge.
Oil on canvas, 54 x 96 in (137.1 x 243.8cm)
Exhibited: London, Haywar...
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