Scottish National treasures – Raeburn: The Skating Minister

For a Burns Night special, we take a break from London’s National Gallery and head to Edinburgh in our series looking at artistic national treasures…

The Skating Minister or, to give it its full title, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (c.1795) is a much-loved painting, and indeed, who could fail to love it? Certainly it’s the one I’d steal from the excellent and manageable-in-a-morning National Gallery of Scotland (though I’d be tempted by Quiller Orchardson’s scene of Voltaire yelling his head off at some fops – a terrific painting which for some reason is almost unrepresented online).

There’s a school of thought that says the duty of art is to bring joy. It’s a small, eccentric, suspicious little school and most sensible people give it a wide berth, as with Steiner Schools. Nonetheless The Skating Minister is an exceedingly joyful painting, guaranteed to raise a smile.

Obviously there’s the fact that the skater is a man o’ the cloth, soberly dressed and with perfectly benign expression, yet executing a manoeuvre the grace and poise of which Jane Torvill herself would be proud. (The Reverend Robert Walker, minister of the Canongate Kirk, was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first figure skating club formed anywhere in the world.)

Such incongruities are always pleasing, but the interesting thing about this painting is that it is so joyful and lively despite such drab colours: a black silhouette against murk. The background of frozen loch, mountain and sky is so muted as to be almost no-background; all the joie de vivre comes from the form – in which striking respect it reminds me, if we can skip south again, of George Stubbs’ equally-loved Whistlejacket.

The Skating Minister is an anomaly in Sir Henry Raeburn’s work –a full-figure miniature whereas he usually painted life-size portraits – and about five years ago there was a serious debate about whether it was in fact the work of French painter Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was a master of depicting movement and happened to be in Edinburgh during the 1790s. It’s now largely accepted that The Skating Minister is indeed correctly attributed to Raeburn, but you can read a summary of the arguments on both sides here.

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9 thoughts on “Scottish National treasures – Raeburn: The Skating Minister

  1. Gaw
    January 25, 2011 at 16:29

    He seems to be doing his very best not to let on he’s enjoy himself – but he just about fails. As a Minister of the Kirk, he was surely aware that Calvin persecuted skaters. Mind you the similarly Calvinist Dutch, as well as creating a sub-genre of painting out of the practice, also turned it into a popular national sport. A funny little paradox. Even more so if he’d been sporting sequins and bare legs.

    Toby Ash
    January 25, 2011 at 19:26

    Wonderful choice. I agree it’s very stealable. You can’t help smiling when you look at it.

    • Brit
      January 26, 2011 at 14:22

      Cool! Do they do it in a cravat, do you know Caolas?

    January 25, 2011 at 22:35

    Duddingston Loch hardly ever freezes hard enough to support a human being these days, though it freezes enough to cause the geese and duck who live there to fall over backwards as they try and waddle on the ice. It can still look as grey and brooding as the picture though. One of the many great things about Edinburgh is that a chunk of the Highlands – Arthur’s Seat and this grand loch – are plonked right up by the city.

    Ian Buxton
    January 26, 2011 at 19:21

    Being obsessed by the politically correct and brow-beaten by the Gaelic lobby the NGS are about to redo all their signs in English & Gaelic. This despite the fact that no-one in living memory ever spoke Gaelic in Edinburgh; the language is only kept alive by subsidy and in their consultation exercise not one in 109 members of staff had ever taken a phone call in Gaelic; a magnificent total of 1 letter in Gaelic had been received; only one attendant had ever been asked a question in Gaelic and three-quarters of staff expressed “no interest” in learning more.
    Some consultation.
    This from an organisation that has just had its grant cut by 4% and is trying to raise £50m to buy a Titian.

    Ian Buxton
    January 26, 2011 at 19:22

    Nice picture though!

    January 26, 2011 at 20:03

    Good grief, Ian, really?

    Out of interest, how many monoglot Gaelic speakers are there in the world?

    January 27, 2011 at 17:43

    One averts one’s gaze for a bit and what, upon re-focusing, does one observe, The Dabblers turned tartan, gone all porridge scoffing, admiring Alba.
    Regarding Burns night, simply another excuse for nosh n’drinkies plus the chance to wear a skirt and listen to those caterwauling bagpipes. A preamble to the season’s Prague-Barcelona-Rome-Budapest bingery. Cheap flight, cheap digs, expensive booze, wake up in a brothel, upset the locals. Groups of surgeons, radiographers and NHS administrators bedecked in kilt and Jimmy hat, piling out of the Ryanair 737 and back to work Monday morning, the clapped out hungover state improving performance. What else would it do from the basis of zero.
    Anyhoo, The Scottish National, not too large, not too small, a box of delights and Raeburn’s Rev a regular stop off, such an elegant turn of calf and, like most accomplished ice skaters amongst a bunch of amateurs, showing off his skills to the best advantage, a blessed poseur we might say, all the while cogitating over next Sunday’s sermon.
    Further delectations would be the Jean Baptiste Greuze A Boy With a Lesson Book , doesn’t he look like Fergie, El Greco’s An Allegory, disturbing and not the least Greek, finally James Guthrie’s A Hind’s Daughter, the marvellous but eerie depiction of a wee border lass.
    No mention will be made of the big ticket items, the fleshy Titian’s, the Botticelli, Fred Botticelli one muses, nor the late Duke’s Leonardo, scruffy, small, pricey. The present Duke, when the Earl of Dalkeith, would chuck it into the back of the Land Rover, transporting it from stately pile to pile, some bad people nicked it, upon it’s return, into the National with it, let the state insure it.

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