Maker: Henry Raeburn , British, 1756-1823
Sitter:Sitter: William Blair , British, 1799 - 1873
Dimensions: 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 22.39
Label Text: William Blair was born at Avontoun, near Linlithgow, West Lothian, Scotland, around 1799, the youngest of seven children and only surviving son of Isabella Cornelia (Halkett) (d.1858) and the Rt. Hon. Robert Blair (1741-1811). His grandfather, the Rev. Robert Blair (1699-1746), was famed as the author of The Grave, a morbid poem in blank verse published in 1743. The sudden death of William Blair's father's on May 20, 1811 was a cause of widespread sorrow and disappointment. Known for his "innate love of justice and abhorrence of iniquity," he had earned great respect while serving as Lord President of the College of Justice, Edinburgh, Deputy Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland (1789-1806), and President of the College of Justice (1808). However, he left his widow and daughters so poorly provided for that they were granted a pension by the crown. Despite the family's financial hardship, William Blair had an early opportunity to travel to continental Europe, and was in the French port town of Marseilles in January 1815. Like his father, he ultimately pursued a legal career. In 1821 he was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates, and thereafter obtained a considerable practice at the Bar. In 1826 he married Jane Christian Nourse (1808-1872) of Cape Town, South Africa. They had five children, none of whom married. Blair served as chief justice in Corfu and died in 1873. The dashing brushwork and romantic, sentimental mood of this portrait of young William Blair capture the principal strengths of Raeburn's late style. Employing a rigorously limited palette consisting for the most part of brown, black, and white, Raeburn relied on strong contrasts of light and shadow to infuse the painting with drama. Deep shadows obscure the upper and lower portions of the canvas, while a concentrated beam of light lifts the boy's head and shoulders out of the gloom. Brilliant highlights lend a sparkling glamour to the head, glancing off the rounded forms of the boy's face, adding luster to his wavy hair, and moisture to his lower lip. His eyes, by contrast, are represented as soulful pools of darkest brown. Applying the paint broadly and thinly, Raeburn achieved a soft, dewy quality that reinforces the romantic character of the head, while also creating a suggestive ambiguity. Exposed areas of gray ground help to structure the eyebrows, eyes, and corners of the mouth, and provide a glimpse of teeth between the parted lips. This technique lends the features (particularly the mouth) a convincingly mobile quality, so that the boy almost seems prepared to speak or smile. Similarly, the wayward curls of hair falling over his forehead cast shadows that blend imperceptibly with the flesh itself, enhancing the sense of lifelike spring and motion in the tumbling locks. As Thomas Gainsborough had done in his famed portrait Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy, Raeburn drew on prestigious models of seventeenth-century aristocratic portraiture in order to ennoble his youthful male subject. In particular, the dramatic presentation, austere color scheme, and historicizing mode of dress point to his emulation of the Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660). Velázquez's single-figure portraits often present their subjects in brown or black doublets with plain white collars, set against dark, unadorned backdrops. Bold effects of intensely focused light and deep shadow infuse such images with a heightened sense of drama. Raeburn's imitation of seventeenth-century dress is broadly suggestive rather than meticulously detailed. Distinctive features of tailoring, such as the shoulder wing and long, draping sleeves of the doublet are vaguely indicated with a few summary strokes of paint. The simple white linen collar recalls the distinctive Spanish gollia mandated for the court by Philip IV in 1623. However, the shape and open neck of Blair's collar betray the influence of early nineteenth-century fashion. This painting is Raeburn's own repetition of his slightly earlier portrait of William Blair, painted for the boy's family around 1810, when the subject was eleven years old. Blair's parents had previously sat to Raeburn for two seated kit-cat portraits in the mid 1790s, soon after their marriage. His father returned to the artist for a more ambitious three-quarter-length portrait at the height of his judicial career. Raeburn also painted one of William Blair's elder sisters after her marriage in 1818, but William alone sat to the artist as a child--a distinction reflecting his special status as the only son, and heir to his father's estate. Comparison with Raeburn's original version of William Blair's portrait reveals that the Huntington canvas is more loosely and thinly painted. The difference in handling owes something to the fact that it is a copy, but it is also consistent with the idealizing softness and sentimentality that Raeburn was then cultivating in children's portraiture. This tendency may have been heightened in the case of William Blair as a result of the poignant family circumstances that led Raeburn to copy the boy's earlier portrait. In the four years that intervened between the original painting and the repetition, William had been forced to grow up. In 1811 his venerated father died, making him the male head of his family at the tender age of twelve. By 1814 he had left Scotland in order to begin an accelerated course of adult grooming on the continent. Like many fatherless boys, William was unofficially adopted by intimate friends of his deceased parent, who guided his social and academic education. It was one of these men, George Home (1734-1820), Principal Clerk of Session from 1781-1812, who commissioned the present painting from Raeburn in 1814. Unmarried and having lost several of his siblings, Home defined his family liberally to include collateral relations and friends. He swiftly developed an affectionate, paternal stance toward William and took a particular interest in educating the boy in the ways of the world. On July 8, 1814 the poet Henry Mackenzie wrote to Home in allusion to their outdoor excursions with William: "I am afraid the want of rain has been as unfavourable to my young friend W. Blair's fishing as to the hay-crop. Were I still with him I would still undertake to give him lessons in angling." A few months later, William was traveling through continental Europe, and Home was evaluating the lessons he was learning there. When William wrote from Marseilles that he had been advised to study with a fencing master, Home observed, "The advice I think a good one. It is the best of all domestick exercises, and far preferable to the dancing Master, for giving ease Elegance and firmness to the motions of the Limbs--but as it is fatiguing it should not be taken to excess as to which I shall take the liberty of cautioning him." Praising the edifying effect of William's descriptions of scenery, Home warned the boy's uncle, Alexander Maconochie, "I should be sorry if he was to become a Landscape painter upon canvas, but he will be better, he will become eminently qualified to enjoy fine Landscapes either in the reality or Representation--To Select and arrange the objects best suited to the Pencil of the Painter and to judge of his Execution." William was evidently being groomed in the refinements of a gentleman in preparation for an illustrious future career. In 1814, the year of William Blair's departure for Europe, George Home issued a flurry of commissions to Raeburn, who was then struggling to keep pace with the successful practice that would earn him election to the Royal Academy that same year. In February he had Raeburn copy his own half-length portrait of William's father, Robert Blair. Some months later, Home commissioned the present repetition of Raeburn's earlier portrait of William, and he also commissioned portraits of himself and his half-sister Jean in the same three-quarter-length size. Writing to William's uncle in January 1815, Home wrote, "I am much pleased with the Copy of his Portrait by Mr. Raeburn. I think it uncommonly fine and so well finished that it will do credite [sic] to the Painter no Person of Taste who sees it but will ask by whom it is done." He went on to commission additional portraits of close friends, including Admiral Sir David Milne, whose daughter-in-law, Jean, ultimately inherited the present portrait. The completion of these commissions was evidently a matter of urgency for seventy-four-year-old Home. When Raeburn informed his patron in November 1817 that he still had much work to do on Milne's portrait, Home replied that he could not wait another year; in fact he died less than three years later. All of Raeburn's paintings were framed identically, and Home may have hung them together in a pseudo-dynastic display. This cycle of commissions sheds valuable light on Raeburn's patronage, but also illustrates the role played by portraiture in the construction of intimate, though non-familial, bonds in early nineteenth-century Britain. By commissioning the present work to hang among his "family" portraits, George Home sought pictorial confirmation of the place William Blair already occupied in his affections. Raeburn's romantic, idealized depiction suggests the heady aspirations that were pinned on William Blair by his extended family circle, and which colored much children's portraiture during this era.