Sir Henry Raeburn: 'He was deeply involved in the profits of black slavery'

He is one of the most celebrated figures of the Enlightenment who became portrait artist to the king and the go-to painter for those wishing to be captured in oils for posterity.
Celebrated artist Sir Henry Raeburn's links to plantation wealth have been revealed.Celebrated artist Sir Henry Raeburn's links to plantation wealth have been revealed.
Celebrated artist Sir Henry Raeburn's links to plantation wealth have been revealed.

Sir Henry Raeburn’s links to the establishment have long been documented – and now his links to the slave trade have also been revealed.

Among his sitters were several wealthy Scottish slave owners but his involvement in plantation wealth are now known to have gone a little deeper, with records showing he was appointed to oversee the sale of a Jamaican plantation where 87 slaves – 42 women and 45 men – were held.

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As trustee to the estate of Alexander Edgar of Wedderly and Stockbridge, Sir Henry and his son were charged with securing the equivalent of around £1.6 million which was due following the earlier sale of the Wedderly estate.

“In this capacity he was at least intended to oversee and make disposal of property including the proceeds of the sale of enslaved people in Jamaica,” the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College London, reported.

Edgar, who died in Stockbridge in 1820, was a long-term associate of Sir Henry, who lived at St Bernards Crescen, Edinburgh, and whose landholdings in the area helped to shape one of the capital’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

Born in 1756, Sir Henry was orphaned at a young age and trained as a goldsmith. He embarked on a Grand Tour and started his career as a portrait painter on his return to Edinburgh in 1787. He receive a knighthood and was appointed painter to George IV in 1822.

Poets, advocates and philosophers were among those painted by Sir Henry, with a number of slave owners also among his subjects. They included

James Edgar of Auchingrammont, the father of Alexander whose plantation was later handled by Sir Henry, and Sir Henry Dundas, the former Home Secretary who delayed the abolition of slavery for around 15 years.

Human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer said: “Raeburn was deeply involved in the profits from black slavery helping slavers to be seen as ‘respectable gentlemen’ – until now.”

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