THE ORIGINS of one of the finest works of Scottish art has been skating on thin ice for the past two months.
But today, the world’s leading authority on Sir Henry Raeburn has broken his silence to reveal who he believes painted The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch.
Professor David Mackie has told Scotland on Sunday that the painting is definitely a Raeburn and not, as many insist, the creation of French court artist Henri-Pierre Danloux.
It has also emerged that the head of the National Galleries of Scotland has decided that the work will remain on display as a Raeburn until evidence to the contrary is produced.
The art world was rocked last month when Stephen Lloyd, a senior curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, announced that after several years of studying the painting he believed it was actually the work of Danloux, not Raeburn.
To date, Mackie has remained silent but he says "considerable pressure" from senior academics has forced him to point out several stylistic features which mark out the work as a genuine Raeburn.
Mackie dismisses Lloyd’s argument, saying questions over the painting’s uncharacteristic Raeburn style are down to the variable styles the artist adopted when he returned from his period in Rome.
Mackie said: "There is absolutely no question, it is a Raeburn. I repeat absolutely no question. It is by Raeburn. There are several stylistic features present in this portrait which are typical of Raeburn and he is a much more varied artist than most commentators have been aware.
"To begin with, there is the interest in profile, an aspect of many paintings which date from the years immediately after the artist’s return from Rome.
"Further, the artist has placed the sitter against a distant landscape which is found in other Raeburns, for example his portrait of David Hunter of Blackness. In addition, the sitter is shown engaged in play, and in the act of moving, as were so many other sitters to Raeburn in the years after the trip to Rome.
"The crucial point is that the vast majority of Raeburns from this period, which is immediately after Rome, differ from one another quite markedly. The very fact that the skating minister doesn’t look like anything else by Raeburn is evidence that it is painted by him."
Mackie says that the date of the portrait is more likely to be circa 1794 rather than 1784 which is stated on the label that accompanies it. Dating the portrait ten or so years later than it should be conforms with Raeburn’s stylistic development.
Mackie, who is Professor of History and Western Art at Savanna college in the United States, is the author of a six-volume thesis on the artist entitled ‘Raeburn, Life and Art’.
Mackie also helped to catalogue the Raeburn exhibition for the National Galleries of Scotland in 1997 and is regarded by the international academic community as the world’s leading authority on Sir Henry Raeburn.
His position is supported by Dr Duncan Thomson, a former keeper of the National Portrait Gallery, who says that Raeburn’s "signature" is evident across the famous painting to anyone who understands his style.
In particular, Thomson says the way the black of the Rev Walker’s coat shines through the white material of his cravat is "absolutely typical Raeburn".
The debate has caused particular controversy as the image of the minister skating across the loch has been used as a marketing symbol for the National Galleries, adorning tea cups, mouse mats, diaries and ties in their shops.
The origins of the skating minister have always been unclear. From the time of the Rev Walker’s death in 1808, the portrait was passed down through his family, but did not appear in any Raeburn catalogues.
It was bought for Scotland in 1949, at Christie’s in London, for 525. It had been sold 20 years earlier by one of the Rev Walker’s descendants.
In recent weeks, the National Galleries has amended its inscription next to the painting, pointing out the debate over its authenticity.
But yesterday it appeared the controversy was finally over after Sir Timothy Clifford, the director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, confirmed that until evidence was produced it would remain a Raeburn.
Sir Timothy said: "I think it probably is by Danloux I find it unlikely that it is by Raeburn and I must confess it is a very, very odd Raeburn indeed if it is by Raeburn.
"But this is still an extremely important picture. Nobody has found a document to prove it one way or the other. Raeburn doesn’t sign, there is no payment for it as a Raeburn or anything else so therefore it can still sail under Raeburn colours for the time being."