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2 Jun 2023

Raeburn’s Edinburgh exhibition opens to the public

Written by Sarah Burnett
Raeburn’s Edinburgh


My name's Antonia and I'm the regional curator for the National Trust for Scotland.
I'm here at the Georgian House, in 'Raeburn's Edinburgh' – a new exhibition that's running until 26 November that explores the life and times of Raeburn, the great Scottish painter who lived and worked here, 200 years ago.
The National Trust for Scotland properties have one of the finest Raeburn collections in the country. We have brought some of them here to the Georgian House for the first time.
The paintings that we've chosen for this exhibition depict a range of professionals, who lived and worked and visited Edinburgh.
I think there was a desire to have one's portrait in either a New Town home, or in an apartment up in the Old Town, that was by Raeburn because he was the freshest, most modern painter of the day.
We're holding this exhibition at the Georgian House because Edinburgh is Raeburn's city.
Raeburn was born, apprenticed, went to school, set up a business and worked in the city all of his life.
It's very fitting during the Georgian period when he was living and working here that an exhibition about his life and times should sit at the Georgian House, which is on Charlotte Square in the New Town, built during his life.
What you can expect when you come to the exhibition is a multi-layered story about Edinburgh, about Raeburn and about the sitters that are in the exhibition.
Each label has a QR code. This QR code takes you to our website, and on the website, there are audio files.
I managed to get a whole collection of volunteers, and they've put a voice to these characters.
So what we have is people telling you directly how they got to Raeburn's studio, how they were friends with Raeburn, what their place was in Edinburgh society, and where they lived in Edinburgh.
And then, you can take an old 1821 map with you, and go out to the streets of Edinburgh and find these places for yourself.

I'm Sheonagh Martin and I'm the Visitor Services Manager of the Georgian House.
I recorded the voice for the lady behind me, Isabella Gregory.
I think that's just quite a lovely way to present an exhibition, so visitors can hear the portraits speak and interact with the portraits in that way.
It just gives you a closer connection to the portrait.
It's very special to have the exhibition here at the Georgian House, because the first resident of the house, John Lamont, had his portrait painted, as so many others did in Edinburgh's New Town, by Henry Raeburn himself.
Because the exhibition is as much a portrait of the city of Edinburgh at the time as it is of Raeburn himself, it's really fitting that it's taking place in the Georgian House, or No. 7 Charlotte Square.

Marking the 200th anniversary of Sir Henry Raeburn’s death, the exhibition at the Georgian House offers new perspectives on one of Scotland’s greatest artists, as well as fascinating insights into Enlightenment Edinburgh.

A new exhibition of Raeburn portraits opens the doors on the painter’s career, his subjects’ experiences of sitting for portraits, and life in Enlightenment Scotland. Running from 2 June–26 November at the Georgian House and free to Trust members, it includes audio of sitters’ experiences and a Raeburn's Edinburgh walking route.

The Raeburn’s Edinburgh exhibition brings together 18 carefully selected portraits and engravings, including a self-portrait, from across six National Trust for Scotland properties for the first time. It tells stories of the artist, the people who sat for him, and the society and attitudes of the city they inhabited.

Curating the exhibition is Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen: ‘Many people are familiar with Raeburn’s work, through portraits such as The Skating Minister – or, to use its official title, Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch – on show in the Scottish National Gallery. But there’s so much more to Raeburn and his world. Using our charity’s Raeburn collection, we’ve created an intimate and inspiring visitor experience which aims to offer insights into the privileged and enlightened world he moved in.

‘Raeburn was very much a man of the moment, during one of the capital’s most vibrant periods, painting everyone from astronomers to aristocrats. This is illustrated through the portraits we have chosen for the exhibition, each of which has a unique Edinburgh connection and an individual story about Raeburn, to provide a unique and fascinating picture of the city.’

Running in parallel, a programme of events and interpretation will illuminate different aspects of Raeburn’s Edinburgh, covering topics from print culture and maps, to historic links to the Caribbean and how visitors can research their own Scottish family history (perhaps finding a link to someone Raeburn painted!). Family events include paper-cutting and collage workshops for children aged six and upwards.

Silhouettes created for the exhibition will be the inspiration for family events on paper cutting and collage

One feature of the exhibition, designed to engage visitors of all ages, is a series of audio recordings. These share the stories and viewpoints of sitters, such as why they commissioned the portrait, how they paid for it, how they chose their outfit, and what they felt about the experience. The short multi-perspective audio stories give fresh insights into the sitters themselves and the working practices of one of Scotland’s best-known painters. They also create a vivid mosaic of the time, helping the visitors of the 21st century to imagine, for themselves, the Edinburgh of centuries back.

A map of Edinburgh, dating back to 1821, covers one wall of the exhibition. This pinpoints key locations in Raeburn’s life, including his studios in the New Town’s George Street and York Place, and Ann Street in Stockbridge, part of a property development scheme he hoped would sort out his financial worries following a bankruptcy. Visitors can then walk around these locations themselves, as the map is also available in a takeaway leaflet.

The exhibition has been innovative for its focus on developing staff and volunteer skills. ‘Our goal has been to increase opportunities for learning as we develop projects like this,’ explained Conservator Lesley Scott. ‘Employees and volunteers at the Georgian House were invited to take part in workshops on stabilising and cleaning frames, which was necessary for displaying the engraved prints. By upskilling our teams, allowing them to understand how materials age and learn methods for preservation, we are investing in future collections care in line with our strategic engagement objectives.’

Curator Antonia Laurence-Allen with the engraving of Raeburn himself

Alyssa, an arts researcher from Corstorphine in Edinburgh, has been working with the Trust on the Raeburn exhibition:

I first encountered Raeburn during tutorials at Edinburgh University while I was studying Scottish art. These were held in the Raeburn Room at Old College, Archers’ Hall, Portrait Gallery and Parliament Hall. Living in Aberdeen for many years, I was well acquainted with the Raeburn paintings of Castle Fraser, Fyvie and Craigievar. I was captivated by their intense gaze, true likenesses, brilliant brushwork, intense colours and the lost stories they couldn’t tell. I thought I knew quite a bit about Edinburgh and Raeburn, but this focussed exhibition delves deeper into how Enlightenment Edinburgh moulded Raeburn’s life and career.

It’s been a privilege to work with the brilliant team at the Georgian House; since visiting as a child, it has always been a place of wonder and intrigue. With its tall windows, velvet curtains, elegant mantles and stunning views across to the Forth, this restored New Town house is an apt location for a Raeburn exhibition.

A keen genealogist, I’ve loved looking up the family history archives at Scottish Records Office through their website Scotland’s People and also Ancestry. Also helpful, The National Library of Scotland (NLS) have digitised many volumes of histories of old families of Scotland. Census, tax records and the Post Office Directories at NLS have also been invaluable. You can almost trace how people moved around the city.

It’s been so interesting researching the individual stories of the sitters and some of their unique links to Raeburn personally. It’s been a great mix of art-history, topographical and archival research. Paintings are portals to the past; I can’t wait to come face to face with the portraits after finding out some of their incredible stories. Knocking on Old and New Town doors, we have unearthed fascinating tales about our New Town residents. Their ancestry and histories link the city’s development.

Raeburn engraving of Professor John Robison

Adding to the sense of engagement and community around the exhibition, the audio stories of the sitters have been voiced by Georgian House team members, including volunteers. Dozens of volunteers, and even their family members, have also stepped forward to steward for the exhibition.

Philip Long OBE, Chief Executive of the Trust, said: ‘Among the 300,000-plus precious objects our conservation charity cares for and shares are remarkable portraits by Raeburn, spread across properties including Alloa Tower, Castle Fraser, Craigievar Castle, Fyvie Castle and Hill of Tarvit, as well as the Georgian House in Edinburgh’s New Town. It’s exciting to bring some of them together for the first time, enabling our members, visitors and other supporters to see some of Raeburn’s finest work, and hear different perspectives on it.

‘I hope that people of all ages will enjoy seeing and hearing the people, locations, stories, and experiences of Raeburn’s Edinburgh, and I’m very grateful for the support of our members, volunteers, donors and visitors. This support makes it possible to organise exhibitions like this and to protect, care for and share Scotland’s heritage.’

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.

“We look forward to introducing both local visitors and tourists to Raeburn’s Edinburgh, and hope that the stories and histories woven into this exhibition will give you a richer sense of the city’s wonderful heritage and its relevance today.”
Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen
Exhibition curator

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