Exhibitions; Skin deep

Sir Henry Raeburn painted a thousand Edinburgh faces, sometimes superbly, but he never managed to find their souls
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The Independent Culture
Sir Henry Raeburn bears a famous and indeed revered name, especially in his native Scotland, but is widely known for only one painting, the marvellous portrait of The Skating Minister, the Reverend Robert Walker. Alas, it is also the least characteristic of his works. The exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy is a thorough account of Raeburn's career in which we look in vain for any canvas that has the bizarre poetry of this figure, dressed in black, arms folded, one leg behind him in the air, zooming across the frozen surface of some Caledonian lake, his eyes fixed on the future life and the certainties of his Presbyterian faith.

So unusual is the picture that its attribution to Raeburn has occasionally been doubted. But who else could have painted it? And the handling of the landscape background with the use of silhouette surely confirms that the painting is from Raeburn's hand. We can still regret that he wasn't quirky more often. The RSA exhibition gives many pleasures and is a useful introduction to late 18th- and early 19th-century Scottish upper-class life. Yet one feels lukewarm about Raeburn's achievement. He was there at the centre of the Athens of the North but was not quite clever enough to hold the intellectual position that - to make an obvious comparison - Joshua Reynolds enjoyed among his peers in London.

Historically, Raeburn belongs to romantic art, but his own romanticism is somewhat lacking. One wants more bravura: even at his best Raeburn gives us only 90 per cent of the dash and nonchalance of his contemporary Sir Thomas Lawrence. Furthermore, romantics should look into the terrors and mysteries of the soul. Raeburn doesn't do this. He was too sensible.

I was hoping for more painterly egotism. This exhibition hints that Raeburn was depressed by the nature of his trade. When we look at Gainsbor-ough, Reynolds or Lawrence they prove themselves to be more than merely portraitists. They rise above the demands of their genre, its conventions and professional negotiations. Raeburn is not of their company because he shows little sign that he was a prince of the brush. This is despite the many felicities of his touch, its repeated unconventionality and even daring, for he worked straight on to the canvas without any preliminary drawing. Only one drawing by Raeburn is known, and it is a slight thing. The absence of work in pen or pencil confirms the feeling that this highly competent and occasionally superb portraitist was not intimate with the sources of his personal talent. His sitters got in the way. In this show one longs for a picture that is not a portrait. A landscape would have been nice. Yet Raeburn never painted a view of nature.

He's credited with no fewer than 1,000 paintings, all portraits. That's a lot, especially if one considers the restricted nature of his constituency. Edinburgh, despite its expansion to the New Town, was still a small community. Raeburn must have met the people he painted every time he walked along the street. He was an established portrait painter by the age of 21, that is to say in 1778. He painted until his death in 1823. For 40 years, therefore, Raeburn recorded Scottish society with due attention to the pride that such a society felt in its distinctions and possessions. Both Duncan Thomson, Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the historian Nicholas Phillipson are keen to stress Raeburn's connection with the Scottish enlightenment. They overstate their case. Because he observed enlightened people it does not follow that Raeburn himself contributed to advanced thought. Nor, it must be said, to the advances made by the art form of painting during the four decades of his prominence.

A little unfairly, Sir Walter Scott thought Raeburn was a hack. In this exhibition are the painter's two attempts to interpret the writer's character. The earlier of them will be new to most people, for it has been lent from a private collection. It dates from around 1808-9, just before the success of the Waverley novels, but Scott was already famous for poetry. This is not, however, a classic painting. Neither is Raeburn's later portrait. He was simply not inspired by the one man who most embodied the genius of their place and time. The most ample and assured of Raeburn's paintings is his Sir John Clerk and Lady Clerk of Penicuik. His essays in heroism are occasionally terrific, as in the picture of the archer, Nathaniel Spens. The portrait of the highland chieftain Francis McNab: "The McNab" is a glorious piece of historical codswallop. I sense that Raeburn liked painting women. Isabella Macleod, Mrs James Gregory is lovely and, most unusually for Raeburn, it feels French as well as Scottish.

Royal Scottish Academy, (0131 624 6200) to 5 October.

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