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Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. (Stockbridge 1756-1823 Edinburgh)
Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. (Stockbridge 1756-1823 Edinburgh)

Portrait of Sir Evan Murray-MacGregor of MacGregor, 2nd Bt., K.C.B., K.C.H., 19th Chief of Clan Gregor, as a boy (1785-1841), full-length, in tartan, in a landscape

Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. (Stockbridge 1756-1823 Edinburgh)
Portrait of Sir Evan Murray-MacGregor of MacGregor, 2nd Bt., K.C.B., K.C.H., 19th Chief of Clan Gregor, as a boy (1785-1841), full-length, in tartan, in a landscape
oil on canvas
61½ x 45½ in. (156.1 x 115.4 cm.)
By descent from the sitter to the present owner.
D. Mackie, Raeburn Life and Art, The Complete Catalogue of the Artist’s Work, unpublished PhD thesis, Edinburgh and Yale, 6 vols, no. 491.
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Scottish Art, 1939, no. 94.
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, Raeburn Bi-Centenary Exhibition, 16 July-16 September 1956, no. 31.

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Lot Essay

This portrait can be dated only on the basis of the sitter’s apparent age. Perhaps he is about thirteen, suggesting that sittings took place circa 1797-9. In the present sale the portrait is making only its third public appearance since the late-18th century. It had evaded the scrutiny of the most distinguished Raeburn scholar of the past, Sir James L. Caw. As it did not appear in Caw’s list of Raeburn’s portraits (1901), the scholars who followed him did not know to mention it in their lists. It first appeared in 1939 when Caw and Stanley Cursiter included it in the Scottish Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London. The painting is in almost every way similar to Sir John Sinclair of Ulster of circa 1794 (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Mackie, no. 646a), in which Raeburn established the form of his standing full length portraits: an erect carriage without the swaying anatomical lines of a figure in contrapposto. Notice how the narrow threads of the set emphasise the upright as they run from the child’s left shoulder to shoe. The Sinclair has a more open setting than here, with less foliage. Sinclair has also more space below his feet and above his head.

The portrait carries at present a discoloured layer of varnish which suppresses Raeburn’s richly colouristic effects. The tartan is probably a brilliant red and the sky above the lochan a cool clear blue. The sitter wears the most unusual skeleton suit of all Raeburn’s portraits of children. These suits for boys were usually monochrome and derived their sobriquet from their close-fitting form. The tartan still awaits decipherment by the historians of costume and the same holds for the accoutrement in the boy’s right hand. Perhaps it is a fishing net for use in the lochan by which he stands. Tartan had been proscribed after the 1745 Rebellion, leading to the creation of Scotland’s many tweeds and checks. Interest in preserving Highland ways had led to the establishment in 1778 of the Highland Society of London and the Society helped to bring about the repeal of the Act proscribing the wearing of tartan in 1782, just before this child was born. This portrait is then a moderately early legal representation of formerly illegal dress.

The foliage is conventionalised, but it gives prominence to the sitter. In the years immediately after completion of this work, Raeburn’s shades would deepen and he would adopt bituminous darks for the remainder of his career. The landscape is as always a beautiful dream, an impression of the Highlands, Romantic, allusive to possession, to social position and concomitant power, to ease of life and diversion from worldly care. All over the composition one sees signs of Raeburn’s lavish talent in manipulating oils. His gifts were among the most delicate and dashing of the European masters of the late-18th century, Italian learnt. Raeburn’s child portraits are almost always unique works and some of them are European masterpieces of their kind, showing the child as a distinct individual, and a distinct individualist. They are among his most endearing and imaginative achievements. Portraits of the very young allowed him rare freedom of conception. There is the unusual Revd. William Sinclair, as a Child (private collection, Washington; Mackie, no. 647) of circa 1808, based on images of St John the Baptist. There is the mildly unnerving Mary and Grace Murray of Polmaise (private collection; Mackie, no. 568) of 1815, and the superb Master Thomas Bissland (John H. McFadden Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Mackie, no. 50) of circa 1809-10, with its basis in imagery from the classical world. There is an important group of them, now mostly in public collections. All are unique unto themselves.

The sitter was the only son of General Sir John Murray, 1st Bt. (1745-1822) and his wife Anne Macleod of Bernera (d. 1830), he entered the army in 1803 and became a Lieutenant in the 15th Dragoons, served on the staff in the Peninsular War, was later in India and in 1837 reached the rank of Major- General. He married, on 28 May 1808, Lady Elizabeth Murray (d. 1846), daughter of John, 4th Duke of Atholl.

We are grateful to Professor David Mackie for providing us with this entry. The portrait will be included in his forthcoming Complete Catalogue of Raeburn, in preparation for the Paul Mellon Centre, London, and Yale University Press.

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