I first saw Henry Raeburn’s work when I was 16 years old at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. It was a portrait of Alexander Edgar and I remember a certain sense of the definiteness in his blue eyes. He had painted the iris as a black ball, with a blue ball underneath, and it worked. His painting technique is fabulous and seems to be done without hesitation. He was self-taught, and there is a directness and an urgency to his approach which you might also see in Caravaggio … up to a point. Neither artist drew – they just painted straight on to the canvas, which I think is an admirable way to work.
I also like the matter-of-factness in his work. Raeburn isn’t Turner; he’s not the tormented, Romantic artist. Instead, we see a lot of pragmatism, and a fascinating sternness, but also probably an element of smallness or lack of criticality in terms of himself or his status and position as an artist. It feels quite contemporary in that he’s trying not to exaggerate, trying to be precise and not to fill in or embellish.
For me, there is definitely something of Goya in him, though Raeburn takes things further in a way. We think of Goya as an Old Master on the brink of modernity, but that is also there with the Scotsman. Look at the looseness in some elements of the painting, and how he depicts the faces with such focus. Also the incredible use of black and the lines that go through it just like abstractions. Goya also did that.
I’m interested in the time in which Raeburn painted his portraits. Many were of the very privileged Scottish establishment: characters who invested in maintaining and expanding the rule of the British Empire, such as Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. He was an archetypal Scottish aristocrat who was very much against the abolition of slavery, and served as Secretary of State for War during the Pitt government.
In preparation for an exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery (part of the University of Edinburgh), I’ve been visiting the great Raeburn portraits in its collection, where you find some of these establishment figures, such as the Enlightenment historian William Robertson and the mathematician and geologist John Playfair. One gets a sense that the artist may have felt an element of dependency towards these people. And that dependency, together with a little bit of vanity, probably led to him painting so many.
It is interesting looking at these paintings now in the context of recent political developments in Scotland. A lot of people underestimate the complexity of the relationship between the Scottish and England, as the recent vote for independence showed. When I visit Scotland I feel that difference between the two countries – and why it seems to me quite impossible for Scotland to cut that link. It would be an economic disaster. My country would like to do the same with the Flemish and the Walloons, which is also insane.
So, with such things in mind, I do feel a sense of empathy when I look at Raeburn’s pictures. There’s something I can understand. Of course, if you see too many, they can become a bit boring: he did well over 300 of them.
In the UK Raeburn appears to have been pigeonholed as a lesser Gainsborough or Reynolds. But I think he is much better than that. And besides, Gainsborough’s just full of his own farts.
This feature was first published in Tate Etc. (Issue 35, Fall 2015), with which Momus is engaged in a partnership.