Sir Henry Raeburn RA (1756 - 1823)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Henry Raeburn was born in Edinburgh, the son of a successful businessman who prepared yarn for the wool trade. However, both of Raeburn’s parents died in the early 1760s, leaving the young Raeburn in the care of his brother William, 12 years his senior. William took over the family yarn business and his younger brother was enrolled at George Heriot’s Hospital in 1765, then a school for the education of orphaned children of tradesmen.

During his schooling, Raeburn demonstrated particular aptitude for manual craftsmanship and he became apprenticed to a goldsmith, James Gilliland in 1772. At some point in his time in Gilliland’s jeweller’s workshop, Raeburn started painting portrait miniatures. Following his apprenticeship, Raeburn embarked upon a career as a portraitist while also attending drawing classes involving drawing from the Antique and from a draped model.

In the late 1770s, Raeburn married Ann Leslie (née Edgar), a wealthy widow who brought property and two daughters to the marriage. After the birth of two sons in 1781 and 1783 respectively, Raeburn began to plan for an extended stay in Rome, which he believed would provide artistic development and commercial success.

Arriving in Rome in late 1784, Raeburn made contact with fellow Scot James Byres, who provided guidance for Britons travelling on the Grand Tour. Byres also provided Raeburn with patrons and the chance to meet notable artists, such as Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787).

On his return to Scotland in 1786, Raeburn began producing impressive portraits for members of the Edinburgh elite, quickly establishing his reputation as the pre-eminent Scottish portraitist. During the 1790s, Raeburn developed his own unique style characterised by strong lighting from behind the sitter and dispersing across the canvas. He was in such high demand as a portraitist that he outgrew his studio in George Street, the fashionable and burgeoning central thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s New Town and, around 1800, moved around to a grand house nearby with reception areas, a framer’s workshop and a studio that took up the entire first floor. In these new premises Raeburn produced a series of full-length portraits of Highland chiefs and lairds in Scottish military dress which drew particular attention when exhibited in London.

From 1805, Raeburn was involved in a trading company called Henry Raeburn & Co., that operated from the port of Leith, trading mainly with London. He also became a director of the Caledonian Insurance Company in 1806, but his finances were far from secure. At the start of 1808, Raeburn was declared bankrupt. The cause of his financial ruin is not entirely known but by mid-1808 he had £36,000 in claims against him. Raeburn vowed to spend the rest of his life repaying these debts and untangling his financial difficulties, which were intertwined with family, as his son and step-son-in-law were partners in his trading firm.

In 1810, Raeburn sought to resolve his financial difficulties by moving to London. His fellow painter and countryman David Wilkie had relocated to the capital five years earlier and provided an introduction to artists such as Benjamin West, Thomas Stothard and John Flaxman. Unfortunately, Raeburn’s attempt to find riches in the London art scene did not work and he returned to Edinburgh later the same year.

Despite his lack of success in London, Raeburn was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1812 and became a full Member in 1815. An embarrassing miscommunication meant that the self-portrait Raeburn had gone to great lengths to prepare as his Diploma work, was refused by the Royal Academy due to their embargo on accepting self-portraits as Diploma works. Raeburn was sorely disappointed, and instead submitted a portrait of his grandson Henry Raeburn Inglis, Boy with a Rabbit. There is evidence in his correspondence that Raeburn felt frustrated at his isolation from the London art establishment, that he could not find success there as he did in his native Edinburgh.

After 1808, Raeburn’s paintings suffered from his prolific output and urgency to produce work to repay his creditors. Many portraits from this time appear hastily finished or lack depth. However, he also managed to produce some of his most sensitive and affecting paintings, and he was particularly adept at painting children.

In the final years of his life, Raeburn was lauded with honours and accolades, becoming a member of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1819, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1820, being knighted in 1822 and appointed as Painter and Limner to King George IV in 1823.

Raeburn died unexpectedly in July 1823, following an excursion to Fife where he probably contracted a fever. His posthumous reputation grew with a number of exhibitions in the 19th century, and his paintings were highly sought-after as part of the early 20th-century American craze for British art; Raeburn’s works feature in several public museums and private collectors in the US today.

RA Collection Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Henry Raeburn painted portraits of and for many Scottish owners of enslaved people (see Note 1).

Raeburn and his son were named as trustees in the will of Alexander Edgar of Wedderly and Stockbridge, tasked to oversee and make disposals of property including the proceeds of the sale of enslaved people in Jamaica (see Note 2).


  1. (accessed 6 May 2022)

  2. Ibid.

Relevant ODNB entries

Thomson, Duncan. “Raeburn, Sir Henry (1756–1823), portrait painter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 6 May. 2022.


Royal Academician

Born: 4 March 1756 in Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

Died: 8 July 1823

Nationality: British

Elected ARA: 2 November 1812

Elected RA: 10 February 1815

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Sir Henry Raeburn in the RA Collection

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Works after Sir Henry Raeburn in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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