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Two outstanding portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, one of the greatest Scottish artists of the early nineteenth century have entered the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which enables works of art to be presented to the nation and offset against inheritance tax.

Raeburn, who was born in Edinburgh and lived from 1756 to 1823, was the leading portrait painter of his time in Scotland, and is regarded as one of the most accomplished and innovative in European art of the period. Originally apprenticed to a goldsmith, he showed enormous artistic talent as a young man. In 1784 Raeburn moved to London and he spent some time in Italy, but returned to Edinburgh in 1787, where he began painting portraits of famous and important contemporaries. He was in constant demand and received many honours, being knighted in 1822.


These highly skilled and ambitious portraits show Raeburn at the height of his artistic powers. They depict the two eldest sons of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire, a wealthy and influential banker, art collector and patron. The paintings were commissioned in 1809–11, when the young boys were around seven years old.

The eldest son, William Stuart Forbes (1802-1826), is shown feeding a hunk of bread to his pet, apparently a Bernese Mountain dog. Fixing the viewer with a playful stare, he holds the bread out in the air, while his other hand rests on the neck of the dog, who patiently awaits the coming prize. The scene is depicted with Raeburn’s customarily deft and economical brushwork, which complements the painting’s skilled handling of light and shade and harmonious colouring. The charcoal grey of the sitter’s suit offsets the glossy black and tan of the dog’s coat and the gentle greys, greens and blues of the wooded landscape around them. The light-hearted theme in combination with Raeburn’s unparalleled artistry makes this one of the artist’s most attractive and engaging portraits.


Its quality is matched, if not exceeded, by the depiction of the younger of the two brothers, John Stuart Forbes (1804-1866). Like the portrait of William, it shows its young sitter with his arm around his dog, possibly a Dalmatian Pointer cross. The boy sits sprawling in a sunlit landscape, gazing up towards his pet’s head. The boy’s face is boldly illuminated but nevertheless rendered with extraordinary sensitivity and delicacy of touch. Once again, the colouring is superb, with the warm pink, ochre and green tones forming a perfectly judged contrast to the cooler palette of its companion work.

The acute observation of the relationships between the boys and their dogs makes these works differ from the conventional portraits that Raeburn more usually produced, giving them much of the appeal of ‘genre’ paintings that show scenes from everyday life. As such, they have an exceptional status within the artist’s output and, indeed, in British portraiture of the period. The National Galleries of Scotland holds a fine survey of Raeburn’s work, although only one other example of his child portraiture, a later painting of about 1822.

To visit the National Galleries of Scotland website:

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