Sir Henry Raeburn

"The Skating Minister" by Henry Raeburn (LEO Design)

“The Skating Minister” by Henry Raeburn (1790’s) Nat’l Gallery of Scotland

On this day in 1756, Henry Raeburn was born in a small Scottish village, now a part of greater Edinburgh.  Orphaned very young, Henry was supported by his older brother for a while until being placed in Heriot’s Hospital, an orphanage founded by goldsmith George Heriot “for the poor, fatherless children of Edinburgh.”

At fifteen, he was apprenticed to a local goldsmith and quickly demonstrated great skill at painting miniature portraits on ivory which were then mounted into rings or mourning jewelry.  Eventually, he began painting larger oils-on-canvas—all the while remaining entirely self-taught.  He was taken under the wing of a prominent Edinburgh portraitist, David Martin, and Raeburn was supplied with paintings which he could copy.

One day, now in his twenties, Raeburn was sketching in a field when he met Anne Edgar who would soon become one of his portrait subjects—and his wife.  Anne’s family was wealthy, which allowed the young, industrious prodigy to travel with his wife to London and Italy to further his education.  While in London, he met a supportive Sir Joshua Reynolds (then head of the Royal Academy of Art) who provided Raeburn with letters of introduction and suggestions of locations he must visit in Rome.  Reynolds insisted that Raeburn pay particular attention to the works of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

After traveling in Europe, Raeburn returned to Edinburgh where he spent most of his time. He rarely left Scotland.  While some theorize he might have learned much by being exposed to other leading artists, others suggest that his isolation allowed him to develop a unique, Scottish style.  And Raeburn was unique; most Scottish artists of his calibre were quick to move to London, currying favor (and commissions) with the English court.  Instead, Raeburn advanced the art form within his country and is considered amongst its greatest painters.

Raeburn painted dozens of Scotland’s aristocrats.  He produced no preliminary drawings and insisted on drawing from life, not memory.  As a result, Raeburn painted quickly, often with coarse, spontaneous brush strokes and a clash of colors.  While this was not the prevailing style of the times (ala Reynolds or Gainsborough), it was a foreshadowing of the painting style to come a century later: impressionism and modern realism.

After a long, distinguished career (which included being knighted by George IV), Raeburn died in Edinburgh at the age of 67 and is buried in St. John’s Episcopal churchyard on Princes’ Street.


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