Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 241: Reverend Dr Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, by Henry Raeburn. c.1795.

Date: 12-12-2004
Owning Institution: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: 18th Century

This year’s picture for midwinter is Henry Raeburn’s small portrait of Reverend Dr Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. Painted some time in the mid-1790s, this lighthearted but exquisite portrait of a learned Scottish divine at his leisure is, deservedly, one of the most popular pictures in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
 
The extremely unusual setting and composition of Raeburn’s portrait may have been suggested to him by the sitter, who was a keen member of the Edinburgh Skating Society. He was, presumably, proud of the skills he had acquired in figure skating, described by his contemporary and fellow enthusiast Lord Cockburn as “the poetry of motion”. The elegant pose which he has struck for Raeburn would also have been recognised by experienced eighteenth-century skaters as “the travelling position”. This was a position designed to enable the skater to cover the maximum distance with the minimum of effort, involving the difficult act of maintaining balance while keeping both arms folded across the chest to reduce wind resistance. The artist has made the most of the contrast between the sternly ascetic black costume of the Scottish minister and the wild backdrop of Duddingston Loch on which he is shown skating – a stretch of water at the base of an outcrop of volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat, just east of Edinburgh. The pinkish grey crags and sky have been painted with great freedom, whereas the figure of Reverend Robert Walker himself is so tightly drawn and painted that he appears almost as a black silhouette against an icy, vaporous wilderness. Perhaps this was the artist’s way of suggesting that, for all his apparent probity and self-restraint, the minister was at heart something of a romantic – a man, at any rate, with a penchant for communing with nature.

Sitter and artist were almost exactly the same age, Ramsay being the younger of the two by just a year. They may have been friends, to judge by the affectionately playful character of the portrait. Ramsay had recently travelled to Rome, to study the art of antiquity, and there are echoes of the antique in the Reverend Walker’s pose, which mock-heroically recalls those of the marble figures of ancient Greek and Roman athletes. He is shown in perfect profile, too, as Roman emperors were on their coins and medals. The subject of the painting, however, recalls Dutch seventeenth-century art and in particular the works of Hendrick Avercamp, who had popularised the genre of the winter landscape, peopled by skaters. Reverend Walker had spent his formative years in Holland – his father William, also a minister, had been translated to Rotterdam when Robert was just five – and he retained a lifelong interest in Dutch history and society. As well as publishing a collected volume of Sermons and The Psalms of David Methodized, Walker was the author of Observations on the National Character of the Dutch, and the Family Character of the House of Orange. So Raeburn’s picture of him skating may have been intended to convey, among other things, the strength of his affinity with Holland.

One of the most appealing aspects of the picture is the extremely delicate painting of fine detail, particularly in the ice skates and the ice itself. This may have been a legacy of Raeburn’s apprenticeship to the leading Edinburgh jeweller and goldsmith, James Gilliland, as the art historian Duncan Thomson has eloquently argued: “The filigree within the buckle on the strap at the skater’s right knee and the taut complexities of the arrangement of the pink ribbons that binds the skates to his shoes are a reminder of the manipulative skills that Raeburn must have developed during his apprenticeship… perhaps the tour de force of observation and the finding of equivalent forms are the marks that the skater (or those who have circled with him) has made on the ice: the curving grooves incised with some appropriate tool (a technique not unusual for Raeburn) in a liquid, greyish white which has been spread over a darker grey that has been allowed to dry and the edges of these tiny furrows, more pronounced towards the bottom of the picture, tipped in with a purer white to simulate the froth of ice thrown aside by the cutting blade.”

There may also be a broader symbolic dimension to this memorable portrait. Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century was the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment – the city of David Hume, William Robertson and the Adam brothers, a place which prided itself on being the intellectual capital of Scotland, and which, in the opinion of Raeburn’s contemporary and fellow painter Allan Ramsay, deserved to be known as “the Athens of Britain.” The Reverend Robert Walker, who was a philosopher as well as a minister, was himself in many ways an embodiment of the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment and the tracery of serpentine skate-tracks around him on the ice amount perhaps to a kind of metaphor for the free movements of his thought.

While he is evidently something of an eccentric, eccentricity itself was viewed as a mark of intellectual independence and freedom of thought in Enlightenment Britain. The residue of that attitude is to be found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, where the author says, in passing, that “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded” – a remark with which, I suspect, the skating minister would have wholeheartedly agreed.

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