Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister on thin ice after X-ray study

One of Scotland's most famous paintings may have been the work of a Frenchman. Picture: PA
One of Scotland's most famous paintings may have been the work of a Frenchman. Picture: PA
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THE row over who painted the Skating Minister will be reignited this week by claims that new X-ray evidence shows it was not the work of Henry Raeburn.

The Skating Minister – which depicts the Reverend Dr Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch – is one of the most-prized possessions of the National Galleries of Scotland and has been attributed to the 18th-century artist by its experts.

The portrait of the skating cleric is almost a trademark

The portrait of the skating cleric is almost a trademark

However, a new book edited by an art historian will claim that X-rays taken of the painting reveal that it lacks the white lead paint Raeburn typically used for his faces and that the work is “utterly alien” to the artist’s technique.

Dr Stephen Lloyd, who is convinced that the Skating Minister is the work of French emigre artist Henri-Pierre Danloux, says his opinion is supported by Pierre Rosenburg, one of the foremost authorities on French painting and a former director of the Louvre.

In the book which examines Raeburn’s life and career, to be published this week by Edinburgh University Press, Lloyd says: “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.”

X-rays of other Raeburn paintings showing the use of lead-white adds to “a compelling demonstration that this painting cannot be from the hand of Raeburn,” Lloyd adds.

He says he met Rosenburg at a conference in Paris last year, and the eminent connoisseur of 18th-century French art said “that the Danloux attribution was absolutely right and that the picture could never have been painted by Raeburn”. Danloux remains “the prime candidate for authorship”.

Further support has come from the book’s co-editor, Viccy Coltman, head of the history of art department at the University of Edinburgh. Coltman agreed the Skating Minister was an “anomaly” compared to Raeburn’s other art and the debate over whose work it was had dominated Raeburn scholarship for too long.

In a joint foreword, they say that by finally removing the painting from Raeburn’s recognised work, “there is no doubt that much greater clarity – and less confusion – will be placed on his achievement as a painter and portraitist”.

Sir Henry Raeburn lived from 1756 to 1823, and produced around 1,000 canvases. His popularity peaked in the early 20th-century, when major works were bought by galleries from the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. There are more than 60 of his works in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Lloyd first questioned who painted the Skating Minister seven years ago, when he was a senior curator for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street. Although the gallery changed the label to read that “recent research” had suggested it was by Danloux, it insisted that “majority opinion … has retained the attribution to Raeburn.”

The new book – Context, Reception and Reputation – which has contributions from leading academics and art historians, explores Raeburn’s influence in France and America, where his works were used to teach students in the first American art academies.

Experts agree that the Skating Minister is an anomaly in Raeburn’s work as it is a full-figure miniature, whereas he usually painted life-size portraits. Lloyd said that the National Galleries of Scotland had allowed him to publish the X-ray taken of the work in 2005 for the first time and analysis had shown that the painting “was nothing like a Raeburn”.

However, Raeburn’s defenders said the new evidence was not convincing enough for the work to be attributed to another artist. The former keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Duncan Thomson, suggested Raeburn may just have changed his technique at that time.

“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.”

The book details for the first time how Henry Raeburn & Co, the artist’s family venture in shipping and the West India trade, collapsed in 1807, bringing his personal bankruptcy a year later.

It pushed him into becoming a property developer and an even more commercial artist, painting the Scottish professional elite, military leaders, aristocrats and golfing friends.

Danloux was born in Paris in 1753 but emigrated to Britain in 1792 to escape the French Revolution.

He was commissioned for portraits of the officer class and the wealthy and is believed to have visited Scotland in the late 1790s before his return to France after the turn of the century.