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19 Jun 2023

Bringing Raeburn to Edinburgh

Written by Dr Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
Self Portrait, Sir Henry Raeburn: a stipple engraving on paper by William Walker, published 1826
Curator Dr Antonia Laurence Allen gives us a behind-the-scenes tour in pictures of exhibition Raeburn’s Edinburgh, and introduces the teams of people involved – from conservation, art handling and installation, to research and engagement.

| Detail of Plan of Edinburgh and its environs from a survey by James Knox, 1821. Engraved by R Scott. Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Scotland.

I start with the curatorial vision for the exhibition, which I developed with an independent researcher, Alyssa Robertson, and the property manager at the Georgian House, Sheonagh Martin. The thesis for the project centred around three main goals.

First, to mark the bicentenary of Raeburn’s death (July 8 1823). You can see on the plan where he was born (No 1) and where he studied (No 34), as well as where he is buried at St John’s Episcopal Church (No 23).

The second goal was to highlight the Georgian House, which is a stone’s throw from St John’s, on Charlotte Square (marked on the map here as No 21). The first family that lived in this building were the Lamonts. The father, John Lamont, had his portrait painted by Raeburn c.1814 (we have a copy of the painting in the entrance hall).

Raeburn was born in 1756, before the New Town was planned, and he would have walked over the streets being constructed as he moved about the city. It seemed most fitting to have this exhibition in a New Town home that Raeburn would have witnessed being built and then displayed one of his paintings.

And the third goal was to highlight the National Trust for Scotland’s magnificent art collection. It was hard to whittle down a small selection of Raeburn portraits from a selection of over 30 oil paintings.

| The morning room at Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire. Regional Curator Vikki Duncan stands with her back to us looking at one of the paintings I had chosen for the exhibition: Isabella Gregory (née Macleod), painted by Raeburn around 1798.

By the end of August 2022 I had finalised the list, based largely on the stories behind the sitters in the portraits. Fyvie Castle has one of the best collections of Raeburns in the Trust – in fact it has a stellar art collection.

I asked the conservator, curator and operations manager for the property if they would give us permission to borrow three paintings, including Isabella Gregory. This is renowned for being one of Raeburn’s best portraits – her dress, her skin, her tumbling hair are a masterclass on the art of painting.

Isabella and her husband James were friends with Raeburn. They moved into a town home on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, the same year the painter opened his grand studio on York Place, just around the corner. I knew she would be the star of the show.

| The charter room at Alloa Tower, Clackmannanshire. Regional Conservator Lesley Scott and Supervisor of Collections Care for Forth Valley Kirsty Redmonds, are discussing the best way of accessing Sir Henry Raeburn’s painting of The Honourable Henry “Harry” Erskine. The portrait hangs above a square piano and a hatch, which opens up to the great hall 30ft below.

| Independent painting conservator, Owen, in the final stages of cleaning the portrait of Henry Erksine.

Here in October 2022, we are checking the condition of a painting at Alloa Tower, which has been identified as a candidate for conservation.

When artworks are lent to exhibitions, they must be condition checked and deemed fit for travel and for display in different environmental conditions (a draughty castle is very different from a second floor townhouse room in the city).

Alloa Tower’s painting was sent to external specialists: Owen Davison, who cleaned the painting and frame conservator, and Colleen Donaldson, who cleaned and stabilised the frame. This work was supported by the Earl of Mar and Kellie, who owns the painting and kindly agreed to lend it to Raeburn’s Edinburgh.

| Sarah Forbes-Sempill being taken off the bedroom wall by the art handlers. They are wearing hard hats because Craigievar Castle was a construction site due to a major conservation project when we came to pick up Sarah in May 2023.

| A UV light shining on Raeburn’s 1788 portrait of Sarah Forbes-Sempill, wife of William Forbes, 5th Baronet of Craigievar.

It looks like a horror show, but these red lines indicate that areas on Sarah’s face have been conserved.

When we went to pick up the paintings in May 2023, we brought Sarah’s portrait down from the bedroom wall in Craigievar Castle and the conservator started a condition check, to verify the condition of the painting before it left the property. As she shone a UV light onto the painting, these red lines appeared, which allowed us to see the full extent of the cracks that had been previously filled. This work has consolidated the painted surface and ensured Sarah Forbes-Sempill was fit for travel.

| Curator Vikki Duncan taking pictures of the labels on the back of Isabella Gregory’s portrait at Fyvie Castle.

| On the back of Isabella Gregory’s painting were labels from a range of Royal Academy exhibitions, including one in 1876 that both incorrectly calls her ‘Miss Gregory’, and correctly notes her address of Cannan Lodge (a plot in what is now Morningside, south of Edinburgh city centre).

As well as checking the condition of the frame and canvas, the back of the paintings were carefully studied. Many of the paintings at Fyvie Castle have not been taken down from their hanging place for years, and this exhibition gave the curator of the property a chance to discover any hidden clues that might shine more light on the provenance and exhibition history of the paintings.

| Art handler Mark, considering the height of the scaffold, to properly lift Isabella Gregory’s portrait off the wall at Fyvie.

| Collections Care Assistant for Fyvie Castle, William Bleakley, uses a museum vac to clean the back of Raeburn’s portrait of the Duchess of Gordon, while in the background the art handlers are on a scaffold adjusting a painting into the space where the Duchess’ painting has been removed.

Dust gathers at the back of paintings and thus a gentle vacuum is necessary before they are wrapped for travel.

While the team helped us with this, I had to ensure the room displays looked balanced. Sarah, the Duchess of Gordon was hanging above another painting. This necessitated a simple move, bringing the lower painting up so it hung in line with those on the other side of the window. In other cases I added interpretation panels in place of the missing portraits, to explain where they had gone and when they would return.

| Ryan, the art handler, adjusts the interpretation panel that replaces Charles Mackenzie Fraser’s portrait, removed from the library at Castle Fraser. Conservator Lesley Scott discusses plans for the exhibition with the property’s Collections Care Assistant Jo Riley (right), who helped us on the day.

| The same day we travelled down to collect the last painting from Hill of Tarvit, near Cupar in Fife. Raeburn’s portrait of Margaret Bruce (c.1810) is taken down and replaced by an interpretation panel, in the library – watched carefully on the right by John Tait of Harvieston, who was also painted by Raeburn.

Property teams opened the doors for us before visitor hours, in order for us to decant these paintings efficiently. The interpretation panels were designed to guide visitors to the Georgian House exhibition page, so they could learn more about the people in the exhibition and how the paintings fit in the story of Edinburgh.

| Art handlers Ryan and Mark wrap the portrait of Isabella Gregory at Fyvie.

| Regional Conservator for the North East Gille Young, securing cotton tape across the portrait of Sarah, the Duchess of Gordon at Fyvie.

Before they travel, the paintings need to be wrapped. We ‘soft wrapped’ the Raeburns as they were going directly to their next location. If they were travelling abroad or being stored in a warehouse to await transport, they would probably have been put into specially made crates.

The painting has cotton tape softly bound around it, with acid free tissue protecting the frame, to ensure the un-glazed canvas remains untouched when it is wrapped in Tyvek.

Tyvek is an inert but breathable material used in conservation as a protective barrier against pests and dirt – it is especially useful for wrapping objects for movement. Over the Tyvek layer, the art handlers will also add a plastic wrap to protect the painting from water damage; this is especially important when moving art in Scotland!

| Meanwhile at the Georgian House, I had chosen a set of engravings and laid them out below the wall I had chosen for them, to see how they might look together.

One of the key things an exhibition like this can do is showcase artwork not often seen together, or seen at all for many years. These prints were in the store rooms at Hill of Tarvit and the Georgian House.

It was important to champion this collection because Raeburn was one of the most copied artists during the revival of Mezzotint engraving from the late 18th century. An engraving of Raeburn’s own self-portrait was commissioned after his death by the Members of the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts (a forerunner of the National Galleries of Scotland).

| Regional Conservator Lesley Scott (right) helps Collections Care assistant Molly Lewis remove a print from its frame – while Collections Care Supervisor Eleni Kolokytha guides a volunteer on the process of filling the moulding of a frame.

A crucial part of the process in preparing the prints for display was to remove them from their frames and clean the glass, the mounts and the paper. Some of the frames required stabilisation. We saw this as an opportunity to upskill our collections care staff and involve any volunteers at the Georgian House who wished to learn about conservation. Thanks to the support of Operations Manager Claire Grant, days were set aside for staff to learn the techniques and a specialist paper conservator, Helen Creasy, gave a demonstration on how to care for historic prints and photographic material.

After the conservation work was completed on the prints and their frames, they were taken to our Conservation Technician Stewart Colquhoun, and freelance art handler Phillip Pestell (who installed the exhibition for us) worked on re-uniting the prints with their freshly cleaned frames.

| Professor John Robison (1739–1805). Mezzotint, Charles Turner (1774–1857). Published 1805 (64cm x 49cm). National Trust for Scotland, Georgian House collection. From an original by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1798, now in the collection of the University of Edinburgh.

| Molly Lewis found John Robison’s articles in the run of encyclopaedias that had been fortuitously and very kindly gifted to the Georgian House in 2022.

| Engravings installed and directly referenced in the map, which pinpoints where these men lived and worked in Edinburgh.

The stories I had written for the exhibition were not designed to be read in any particular order, which meant the installation was flexible and we had the freedom to move the engravings around on the wall to get the correct balance.

The stories of each sitter – and there are 18 in the exhibition – were chosen to illustrate Edinburgh’s society that was brimming with optimism and energy in the 18th century. The city was home to the Scottish courts, religious headquarters, incorporated trades, and an expanding university, and was flourishing with cultural debate as a result.

John Robison’s story is a case in point: he was the son of a Glasgow merchant and became a brilliant mathematician – he navigated the seas and skies, hence the globe and telescope beside him – and became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He also contributed articles to the 1792 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in Edinburgh.

Molly chose the articles for display, including one on astronomy, which is nearly one hundred pages in length and filled with fascinating diagrams by Robison. Here she is showing Alice Law, the Bute intern working with Conservation & Policy at the Trust, one of those pictures, while the painting of Isabella Gregory waits to be hung in her place.

| Final touches – Alice cleans the frames with a fine brush before they are hung in place.

| Alice works beside Phillip, who is moving the paintings to their places in preparation for installation.

| Installation in progress, Phillip works with freelance art handler Duncan Marquiss.

| Silhouettes made by artist, Tessa Asquith-Lamb, who was commissioned to produce nine images; eight tell the story of Raeburn’s life and one became the main image for the exhibition. This latter image is top left and has Raeburn’s profile set against No 7 Charlotte Square, where the Georgian House is located and the exhibition is on display.

| The silhouettes were framed by Phillip Pestell and Stewart Colquhoun, with Georgian-style frames and mounts chosen by me to compliment the dark paper and green walls. I tested several layouts, testing each one to see if people could guess the order correctly; I chose to set silhouette 1–4 on the top then 5–8 on the bottom, as every person wanted to read it this way.

| The final installation was as I had hoped, and the silhouettes directly reference locations on the map – where Raeburn was born, and where he studied, apprenticed, worked and was buried.

Raeburn’s Edinburgh opens at the Georgian House, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, on 2 June and runs until 26 November 2023. The exhibition is included in admission to the Georgian House, which is free for National Trust for Scotland members.

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