SCOTLAND’S top expert on the work of Sir Henry Raeburn leapt to the artist’s defence in a special lecture yesterday, saying it was inconceivable that an "exotic French artist" had painted his most famous portrait.
Duncan Thomson, a former keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said he was fighting to protect Raeburn’s spirit and reputation against people "ganging up" on the painter in Edinburgh, London, Paris and New York.
Mr Thomson told a packed auditorium at the National Gallery of Scotland yesterday that The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch was clearly Raeburn’s work.
Family records of the painting’s history could not be dismissed and telltale signs in the techniques exactly mirrored Raeburn’s other portraits.
He was speaking a month after a senior curator at the portrait gallery, Stephen Lloyd, claimed the Skating Minister was more likely the work of a French migr painter, Henri-Pierre Danloux.
Mr Thomson yesterday read a note from the Rev Walker’s 80-year-old great-granddaughter, Beatrix Scott, describing the painting’s family history.
It was "outstanding" proof of the 200-year-old painting’s pedigree, he said, adding: "What we know for certain is the painting was in the Walker family."
Ms Scott, whose parents married four years after Raeburn’s death, sold the painting for 700 in 1926. She wrote: "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."
Mr Thomson said: "We can’t dismiss this statement as the meanderings of a senile octogenarian, which she was very, very far from being."
Dr Lloyd fired the first question after Mr Thomson’s lecture yesterday. He said X-rays of the Skating Minister showed it as the only known Raeburn painting that did not use white lead paint for the face. Mr Thomson said experts should look at X-rays of Danloux’s work as well.
Mr Thomson ran a 1998 exhibition of Raeburn’s work which fuelled speculation that the picture did not equate to the artist’s other work.
The figure of the Skating Minister is much smaller in scale than Raeburn’s other portraits, and he agreed it was not "typical". But Raeburn also painted miniature portraits.
The painting was bought for Scotland in 1949 by Sir Ellis Waterhouse, then the galleries’ director and one of the most distinguished British art experts of the 20th century. If he thought it was a French painting he would never have bought it, said Mr Thomson.
The picture clearly shows how Raeburn tinkered with the angle of the minister’s hat. "Raeburn pictures are full of this," said Mr Thomson. "I can think of none in the work of Danloux."
Other trademarks were scored lines using the wrong end of the brush and scuffed pink paint used for the cheeks of Raeburn’s portraits.
Mr Thomson said: "Raeburn is still being misunderstood by the metropolises of London, Edinburgh, Paris, New York. They are ganging up against the reputation of this great Scottish painter. It is very, very clear the painting was his."