fri 21/02/2020

Yuletide Scenes 1: The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch | reviews, news & interviews

Yuletide Scenes 1: The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch

Yuletide Scenes 1: The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch

Henry Raeburn's skating minister is the first in our series of irresistibly memorable seasonal images

The Reverend Robert Walker glides effortlessly on the ice

In our chilled Decembers, even when snowless, winter scenes are visually synonymous with Christmas, and Henry Raeburn’s small painting of The Reverend Robert Walker, from the 1790s, skating with abstracted solemnity and perfect balance on Duddingston Loch, only a few minutes away from the National Gallery of Scotland itself, is one of the most irresistibly memorable seasonal images. Since the skating minister entered the national collection in 1949, his portrait has become immensely famous: the gallery’s most popular postcard by far, and reproduced on jewellery, keyrings, ties, scarves, sketchpads, pencil boxes, jigsaw puzzles, and chocolate: take that man home.

Henry James said Raeburn could draw better than Gainsborough or Reynolds

Robert Walker spent most of his childhood in Holland, where his father was minister to the Scots Church in Rotterdam and where he evidently learnt to skate. Back home he was also a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, possibly the first such club in the world. And here he is executing a technically accomplished manoeuvre, his arms folded to reduce resistance, but making it harder to actually balance, belying perhaps the rather dour figure he presents. What is so vividly, wonderfully portrayed is that sense of gliding effortlessly, the curves visible in the ice indicating the journeys on skates of the previous hours. It is also that sense of discipline and skill given over to just the joy of its exercise, a leader of the church taking some time to simply be, beyond the call of work and duty. The crisp grey cold is an appropriate background, the pinkish greys of the cloudy atmosphere and the stark black of his silhouette all combine to convey a euphoric moment: the sense that it is hard won, by learning and practice and not an accident, mean too it is earned happiness.

Its author, the self-taught painter Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), the Kings Limner in Scotland, was a pillar of the Scottish enlightenment, and Scotland’s leading portraitist and both Royal Academician and Royal Scottish Academician. He was mentored by Reynolds, studied in Italy, and had the great common sense to marry for love a young and very wealthy widow, which did not impinge on his undoubted industry. He painted everybody who was anybody, including Sir Walter Scott no fewer than four times. This painting is so uncharacteristic that its authorship has been questioned, but it is now firmly attributed.

Henry James said Raeburn could draw better than Gainsborough or Reynolds but that his work was manly and respectable, lacking a certain charm, hardly fanciful: “it is plain nutritive prose…Presbyterian art”. This Presbyterian skating minister though is both nourishing and a picture of grace, an arrested moment of festive pleasure.

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