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The Skating Minister – Scottish Review of Books
by Duncan Thomson

The Skating Minister

October 28, 2009 | by Duncan Thomson

Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the Revd Robert Walker skating on a hard winter’s day more than two centuries ago is one of that select number of pictures, such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, that is immediately recognisable. The name of the artist or the identity of the finely balanced figure in the black coat may not spring immediately to mind, but the simple image will nearly always provoke a smile of familiarity.

An important part of the fame of The Skating Minister, as it is familiarly known, is that it is probably based as much on reproductions as on the picture itself. Surrounded by other paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the National Gallery of Scotland, it is much visited, but the lasting impression is just as likely to have been made by the postcards, mousemats, posters, carrier bags or mugs that are on sale in the gallery shop. In this way The Skating Minister is carried around the world. Such indeed is the magic of the image that the Catalan architect Enric Miralles transposed the abstract dynamics of the figure into the shape of the west-facing windows in Scot-land’s new Parliament building.

Pictures that have acquired such fame have usually been around for a long time, hanging in public galleries and reproduced many times over in books about the artist. But the strange thing about this picture is that, until as recently as 1949, practically no one knew of its existence. It was not mentioned in any of the early books on Raeburn and never reproduced, even when it appeared briefly at an auction house in London early in 1914. Long hidden in the houses of the subject’s descendants over four generations, this was its first, scarcely noticed, emergence from obscurity – to which it soon returned.

Raeburn painted this portrait, so different from any of his other surviving works, when his reputation as Scotland’s pre-eminent portrait painter was already well established. When Robert Walker died in 1808, at the age of fifty-three, the painting came into the possession of his widow, Jean Fraser. When she Jean died in 1831, it was inherited by their daughter Magdalen, who was married to Richard Scougall, a merchant in Leith. It was subsequently inherited by the daughter of these two, Magdalen Scougall, who married James Bairnsfather Scott. In due course it came down to their daughter, the skating minister’s great-granddaughter, Beatrix Scott, who lived in Boscombe in Hampshire. It is likely to have been seen by many others in this period of more than a hundred years, but there is no record of it.

Then, in March 1914, Beatrix Scott put it up for sale at Christie’s, hoping to get at least 1,000 guineas. The early years of the century had been a heyday for Raeburn prices, but times were changing as rumours of war increased, and the painting failed to find a buyer. In 1926, when the economy was in an even worse condition (it was the year of the general strike) Beatrix Scott sold the painting privately to a Miss Lucy Hume, of Cavendish Road in Bournemouth, for £700. The picture remained with her until 1949, another time of austerity, when it was once again presented for sale at Christie’s. The chairman of Christie’s at the time believed the painting would be “cheap at £1,000”. In the event, on the initiative of the great historian of British art, Ellis Waterhouse, who was then Director of the National Gallery of Scotland (NGS), the painting was acquired for the nation – for just £525. Christie’s had on this occasion included a photograph of the picture in its promotional literature and that is likely to be the first time it had ever been reproduced. It was to be the first of many millions. Now, the long dead Presbyterian minister, who clearly loved life, was skating “into time and history”.

But the picture’s fame was not immediate. In 1949, art galleries had a faintly forbidding air, a certain aloofness, and did not go out of their way to publicise their activities. Growing prosperity, however, led to changes in society that brought greater equality and a much wider interest in the culture of the past. Galleries in turn began to sell themselves more vigorously, and while some might question a new-found reliance on hype and soundbites, the health of society gained from far wider access. Yet even that process was slow: it is a curious fact that as recently as 1972 when the NGS published a history of its collection, Pictures for Scotland, no mention was made of the painting of the skating minister.

However, something of the picture’s essence caught the eye of the man and woman in the street, perhaps a deep-rooted need for some lively link with the past. Marketability followed as new means of reproduction appeared and in the last two or three decades the picture has become a virtual icon for the National Gallery of Scotland. Indeed, it has become more than that and is now “the Scottish picture”, something so readily identified and so inherently witty that the image is frequently filched by cartoonists. And, almost inevitably, the painting has come to signify Scotland’s greatest painter, his minister friend fluttering on banners in the streets of London when the major exhibition of his work was shown there in 1997. It would have astonished Raeburn, who throughout his life felt rather ignored by the metropolis. And, a final pointer to a fame now wider than Scotland or Great Britain, where the term “international reputation” really has some meaning, is how it became the standard bearer for the exhibition Pintura Britanica – British Painting from Hogarth to Turner – at the Prado in 1998. Madrid, the city of Velazquez and Goya, was suddenly awash with posters of this startling picture from the north.

Who was Raeburn’s friend, this Scottish minister who acquired a kind of immortality he could never have expected? Robert Walker was born in the village of Monkton in Ayr-shire on 30 April 1755, the third child of William Walker and Susanna Sturment. Susanna was an American from Virginia, a fact that hints at horizons rather wider than those of this rural parish. William Walker’s manse, where Robert spent his earliest years, no longer stands, but it lay half-way between his own church of St Cuthbert’s and the nearby church of St Nicholas in Prestwick where he was also expected to preach. St Cuthbert’s is a small pre-Reformation building which remained in use until 1837, after which it fell into disrepair. Its ruins and surrounding graveyard can still be visited.

In 1760, when Robert was five, his father was called to the vacancy in the Scottish Kirk in Rotterdam. Here he would minister to a large expatriate congregation of merchants and their families, seamen and mercenaries, as well as the descendants of those who had earlier fled from religious persecution in Scotland. The Scottish Kirk, built in 1695 on the Schiedam Dijk on Vasteland by the northern bank of the River Maas, was an impressive classical building, its stone frontages pierced by large, round-topped windows. Still a relatively new building when the Walkers were there, it was totally destroyed by German bombing soon after the start of World War Two.

It is only possible to guess the details of the family’s sojourn in Rotterdam. Robert is likely to have learned Dutch and to have had some awareness of Holland’s embroilment in the Seven Years War. It must have been the Dutch side of his being that caused him in adulthood to write his Observations on the National Character of the Dutch, and the Family Character of the House of Orange. A family happening that was probably much more traumatic than his uprooting from Scotland was the death of his mother at some time during their early years in Holland. This was followed in 1767, when he was twelve years-old, by the re-marriage of his father to Elizabeth Lawson, the widow of a Rotterdam merchant, William Robertson.

Winters were harder then than now, and the web of canals and waterways that were such a vital part of life in Holland were frequently frozen over. But life went on much as usual, with the everyday activities of commerce and entertainment simply transferred to roadways of thick ice. As paintings and engravings show, many took to skates and Robert must have been among them. This early introduction to the sport and its necessary skills no doubt gave him an edge over his contemporaries in Scotland when he came to join the Edinburgh Skating Society.

It is not surprising, given his background, that Robert should eventually enter the ministry. Both his father and grandfather had done so, and his uncle Robert was minister at the High Kirk of St Giles, and one of the most distinguished churchmen in Edinburgh. It was he who had proposed, although somewhat belatedly, his brother William for the vacancy in Rotterdam. In 1771 this Robert was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Church’s governing body; and in that same year the younger Robert appears to have matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. The records are inconclusive, but he is likely to be the Robert Walker who attended the philosophy classes of Adam Ferguson, one of the great proponents of the Scottish ‘common sense’ school of philosophy.

It appears that Robert did not bother to graduate, something not all that uncommon at the time. However, by 1776 he was deemed by the presbytery of Edinburgh to be sufficiently well qualified to be inducted to his first charge. This was to Cramond Kirk in the village of the same name, some six miles northwest of Edinburgh on the shores of the River Forth. At the age of only twenty-one he was being asked to cope with a parish in disarray. The previous minister had left because he had lost faith in the idea of an established church and the lay patron had failed for a number of years to supply the “elements mony”, needed to pay for the wine and bread of the sacrament. In fact, no communion had been administered for five years. In addition, the manse and its out-houses, as well as the school and schoolmaster’s house, all the responsibility of the minister and his elders, were in a state of disrepair. Adultery among the parishioners was rife.

Two years after his arrival at Cramond, Robert Walker married Jean Fraser, daughter of an Edinburgh lawyer. She must have found her situation difficult. It is not impossible that Robert sought some relief from the problems of his parish by seeking more congenial society, as well as physical recreation, in his membership of two Edinburgh associations, both, of course, all male. In September 1779 he was elected to the Royal Company of Archers, the sovereign’s bodyguard in Scot-land. The following year he joined the Edin-burgh Skating Society.

Active membership of these bodies must have entailed long rides into Edinburgh and back, and, since skating was of necessity only possible in severe weather, pursuit of this particular sport involved extra hazards for a rider. In fact, the Society’s favoured stretch of water, Duddingston Loch, lay on the edge of Duddingston village, which was a further two miles to the south-east of the High Street of Edinburgh. As he rode into the city in these years Robert would have been struck, especially in bright weather, by the sight of the golden buildings of the classical New Town that was rising in the fields to the north of the Castle. This development would take another two or three decades to complete, and in the meantime the focus of public affairs still lay in the medieval area of the city, despite its increasing overcrowding and squalor. The High Street was, and is, like a lizard’s skeleton in plan, with its head the Castle and its flattened tail the Palace of Holyroodhouse, while its ribs are the narrow streets and closes that fall away to either side. Geologically, it is a “crag and tail”, the castle rock and the debris left by ice travelling over it to the east in pre-historic times. The lower section of this mile-long tail – now called the Royal Mile – was the Canongate, once a separate burgh outwith the city walls which derived its name from the nearby Abbey of Holyrood. It was to this part of the city that Robert would soon move, attracted no doubt by its social variety – and not by its proximity to Duddingston Loch. It is easy to forget, because of the fame of one remarkable painting, that skating never played more than a small part in the life of “the skating minister”.

In the summer of 1784, Robert Walker was preferred to the vacancy of senior minister at the Canongate Kirk, a wonderfully Dutch-looking building on the north side of the Canongate. The charge carried a stipend of £99 a year together with 51 bolls of victual in equal proportion of wheat, barley and oats and was in the presentation of the Crown, requiring the assent of George III. Robert was thus, at the early age of twenty-nine, taking up a highly prestigious position – and following, as it happened, in the footsteps of his grandfather who had been minister there forty years earlier.

Robert and his wife Jean, who now had three children, Magdalen, Jane and baby John, are unlikely to have lived in the church’s manse in Reid’s Court, set back from the roadway a few yards down the hill; this seems at the time to have been occupied by the second minister, the Revd John McFarlan, a landed gentleman with a large family. It is probable that they moved into a house in nearby St John Street, composed of new and comfortable houses, one of which became the principal manse in 1816.

While Robert was quite an adept theologian, and his sermons sometimes have a nice turn of phrase, he was part of the atmosphere rather than the substance. While making no great contribution to intellectual progress, he must have rubbed shoulders and had practical dealings with many of these geniuses. He was elected, as we have seen, to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784 and was chaplain to the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce from 1794 to 1807. He was also a member of the Speculative Society whose members included men like David Hume and Walter Scott. Hume had died four years before Robert came up Edinburgh and his agnosticism would have made him suspect to even a humane and moderate churchman. On the other hand, the homely values of Scott would have been nearer to his heart.

One of his parishioners was Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations. He lived at Panmure House in the Canongate and when he died in 1790 he was buried in the Canon-gate Kirk’s graveyard. It has to be assumed that Walker officiated at his funeral. Also lying in that same graveyard were the remains of the young poet Robert Fergusson. In 1787, Robert Burns, who saw Fergusson as his forerunner, had sought permission from the church session to erect a monument over his grave. Burns and Walker were close in age and their birthplaces in Ayrshire, Alloway and Monkton, were only a few miles apart – a tenuous bond but the kind of thing that often draws strangers together. But there was a stronger link. Burns was in Edinburgh to see the second edition of his poems published by William Creech, a man who was not the most generous of publishers but whose premises were a meeting place for literary society. Creech was also Walker’s publisher, bringing out his sermons in 1791, and a friendship between the two is suggested by the fact that he was to be an executor of the minister’s will.

Such men of genius were part of the everyday society in which Robert Walker spent his days. It was a society which we are fortunate to be able to imagine through the eyes of Henry Raeburn, who painted many of the most prominent people of the period. In the direct and expressive way in which his art defined the people who composed this society, Raeburn – and this should not be forgotten – himself became one of the great luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment.

These were momentous times in the life of the human spirit. In the previous decade David Hume had written, “I believe this is the historical Age and this the historical Nation”. There was little, however, that was momentous in the outward events of Robert Walker’s life. Social clubs and societies, card parties and dinner parties, archery, golf and skating (occasionally), as well as the preparation of sermons can be assumed to be part and parcel of uneventful days – uneventful but regulated. According to the Statistical Account, “People of fashion and of the middle rank dined at 4 or 5 o’clock. No business was done in the afternoon, dinner of itself having become a very serious business.” Cards and then a late supper usually followed.

We would love to hear Robert’s voice on skating, on Raeburn, and on his portrait, but it is a fond wish. We do, however, hear him in his writings, particularly his sermons, as we have already seen. From these we can come a little closer to his personality. In his short article on the odd Dutch game of Kolf he remarks that he himself had been “no mean player”. In his Observations on the Dutch he is firmly pro-Dutch, though he could be accused of dealing in stereotypes: “The Dutch are a steady rather than a speculative people. They are not disposed to part with the substance for the shadow… The phlegmatic disposition of the Dutch nation prevents them from being speedily roused, but there is, notwithstanding their natural slowness, an energy and firmness in their character that must ever render them formidable when once they are stimulated to action.” From his published sermons we have already noticed his belief that religion need not be a glum business; and the “energy and firmness” that he saw in the Dutch are qualities that mark his own Christian beliefs.

These sermons were published by Creech in 1791, followed by an American edition in 1797. The following year he drew up his will, which might suggest that he felt his health to be failing, although he was still only forty-two. He left all of his “moveable goods” to his fourteen-year-old son John. Little is known of Robert’s family life in these years. He and Jean had lost their one-year-old son William in 1787; in 1788 another son was born and given the name Robert, perhaps to signal continuity and a resolve to go on with life whatever tribulations fate might inflict.

Robert died in 1808, aged fifty-three. He was buried in the north-east corner of the Canongate graveyard, but the gravestone that must have been erected has vanished. His widow Jean lived on for many years, until 1831. How often did she glance at the rather strange portrait of her late husband?

Among the nine trustees of Robert’s estate were Charles, Earl of Haddington, hereditary keeper of Holyrood Park, William Creech the publisher – and “Mr Henry Raeburn, Portrait Painter in Edinburgh”.

Exactly why Raeburn made this unique portrait of his friend will probably never be known, unless new documentation comes to light. That they were friends we assume from Robert Walker’s will, but the clearest testimony of all is the painting itself. There is no evidence that they ever skated together, but Raeburn liked company and was a man of great vigour. It is more than likely that they at least walked round the looming Arthur’s Seat together to the frozen Duddingston Loch.

Skating, when conditions allowed, had become a fashionable sport in Scotland in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the Edinburgh Skating Society, which dated back to at least the middle of the century, placed great emphasis on good fellowship and mutual admiration. Robert, however, skates alone. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the vogue in this way: “The metropolis of Scotland has produced more instances of elegant skaters than perhaps any other country whatever; and the institution of a skating club… has contributed not a little to the improvement of this elegant amusement.” Raeburn was never a member of the club – he probably didn’t have enough spare time for that kind of commitment – but he must certainly have seen Walker skating, and been intrigued by the sight. He must, at the very least, have made some sort of mental record of the gliding figure, to be sorted out and elaborated later in his studio. Whether that studio was his original one in George Street or his painting room in the splendid terraced house he had had erected at 32 York Place (now a dejected looking suite of offices) in 1798, depends on the date of the painting.

Robert Walker had joined the Edinburgh Skating Society in the winter of 1780. This was fifteen years before the introduction of an entrance test which involved skating a complete circle on each foot, and then making three jumps over three hats piled consecutively on top of each other. Although these tests were introduced long after Robert joined the club, an ability to skate well was always expected of the membership. This consisted mainly of lawyers and landed gentlemen, with a number of army officers, a few merchants, civil servants and medical doctors – and three ministers. It is not clear what form of skating the club favoured in these early years but, although it was a sociable affair, it had not reached the elaborate combination styles of the nineteenth century. The club’s motto, engraved on the medallion each skater was expected to wear suspended from a ribbon round his neck, was “Ocior Euro” – swifter than the east wind – a quotation from the Latin poet Horace. That Raeburn has shown Robert without the club’s badge suggests that he was not particularly familiar with the rules of the club.

The motto hints that speed was a significant aspect of the kind of skating practised by the club. Another was the performing of a series of “attitudes and graces”. Many of them had been described by an artillery officer, Robert Jones, in the first text book on skating, the grandly titled Treatise on Skating, published in 1772. Among these attitudes was the so-called “Flying Mercury”, illustrated in an engraving in Jones’s book. It was a pose that imitated a famous piece of sixteenth-century sculpture, the bronze Mercury by Giovanni Bologna. A version of this was engraved on some of the members’ medallions. The illustration in Jones’s book, although the skater’s arms make elegant gestures, shows the figure in pure profile, the body taut, and recalls Raeburn’s portrait in a number of ways.

Walker chose – or was it Raeburn’s choice? – to be portrayed propelling himself forward in the conventional “travelling position”, his arms folded compactly on his breast. Raeburn has not been topographically accurate in this way. Indeed, doubts as to whether Robert should be described as skating on Duddingston Loch have been raised from time to time, but the traditional title is certainly an appropriate one. Although Raeburn generally believed that landscape backgrounds should not be too detailed, in this case he has been at pains to convey the feeling of an actual locality. He has done this by loosely combining the two landscape features most likely to leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who walked out from Edin-burgh to the village of Duddingston to skate on its loch: the towering form of the Nether Hill (or Lion’s Haunch) of Arthur’s Seat on their left as they approached the village, and the distant, snow-tipped Pent-land Hills to the south as they are seen from the surface of the ice.

It is, however, the finely modulated, dark outline of Robert Walker’s figure against the icy greys of the foreground and the slight pink of the landscape and the gathering dark of the clouds in the distance, that are so striking and memorable about the portrait. The same delicate precision that has traced the figure’s outline also marks the warm profile of his face, the flecks of paint so deftly placed that we are convinced that this is exactly how the man must have looked. Although the hazy background is brushed with the easy freedom we have come to expect from Raeburn, the lower part of the picture shows that fine skill in portraying the minutest details that Raeburn always retained. For example, there is the filigree of the buckle on the garter at Robert’s right knee and, again, the amazing complexities of the bindings that fix the skates to his shoes. Two materials are used here, subtly differentiated in texture and colour. Each skate is fixed to the shoe by three brownish leather straps, one at the heel, one across the instep and the other at the toe. These straps have then been tensioned by a pink linen tape (inkle is the technical term) whose windings and knots are perfectly detailed.

One aspect of the refining and correcting which underpins the seeming perfection of the finished picture has given rise to some unfounded myth-making. That is the now very visible change that Raeburn made to the position of the wide-brimmed hat, which casts a tiny shadow onto Robert’s forehead. This alteration would have been made as the painting developed and would not have been visible when it was completed. However, oil paint has a tendency to become transparent with time and so the change of mind can be seen once more. Interesting as it is in showing how Raeburn’s mind worked, it gave rise to the notion among Robert’s descendants that Raeburn had altered this part of the picture many years after he had painted it so that it matched Robert’s appearance at the time of his death. However, there is not the slightest sign of a change of that sort.

Was Raeburn’s image of the skating minister a wholly original invention, or was it suggested by the work of some other artist? Raeburn must have been familiar with the little etched portraits of the Edinburgh caricaturist John Kay, lively and humorous but entirely unsophisticated. A large number of these etchings show well-known figures of the city perambulating through its streets – whole length, and both body and head usually in profile. There is an especially witty one, set in the countryside, that illustrates a hilarious episode in the life of William Forbes of Callendar.

Dated 1797, and unusually animated, it shows the rich entrepreneur fleeing in disarray from his imagined enemies, his Falkirk neighbours who disapproved of his wealth. But the flames that cause him to leap in a way that is so reminiscent of the skating minister’s posture were in fact spouting from the nearby Carron blast furnaces! Did Raeburn take a quick look at this amusing print and note its possibilities? It so happens that Raeburn painted a very grand portrait of Forbes the following year, 1798. Forbes is hardly likely to have produced Kay’s print for inspection when he came to Raeburn’s studio, but the painter is more than likely to have been aware of it as he worked on the portrait of his vainglorious sitter. If there is a grain of truth in the notion that Raeburn was influenced by this little print, it could mean that the portrait was painted in 1798, or even a little later. This would make Robert about forty-five at the time and solve a problem that has bothered many – the fact that he seems too old for a portrait of the early 1790s when he would still not have reached forty. However, the one experiment in profile which comes closest to the portrait of Robert Walker, and it is a performance just as unexpected, is the little cameo portrait Raeburn made of himself in 1792. Raeburn is known to have contemplated becoming a sculptor, but this is his only work in three dimensions. It is likely to have been modelled as a jeu d’esprit, a little competitive game, with that other great portraitist of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Tassie, during one of his modelling visits to Scotland. Tassie is the supreme profile portraitist of the period and we can guess that Raeburn was so intrigued by his workmanship that he was tempted to try his hand, using himself as the subject. The wax model he made would then have been cast by Tassie in his opaque glass paste on his return to London. The result was another unique portrait, where the touch of the modelling tool, not finicky but subtle and refined, is so close to the crisp brushstrokes that describe the outline of Robert’s face, the merging of his ear and hair, and the stock that enfolds his throat.

Henry Raeburn, the painter, and Robert Walker, the minister, would no doubt be amazed at these attempts to work out the story behind this painting – for they knew the truth! However, the one truth we are sure of is that, with an intimacy rare in portrait painting, they have left for our enjoyment a picture of wit and beauty that, while it intrigues, expresses a well-being of the spirit. The Revd Robert Walker’s resting place in the Canon-gate kirkyard may have vanished, but he skates on in grace.

An edited extract from The Skating Minister by Duncan Thomson, published by The National Galleries of Scotland

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