The Life and Work of Henry Raeburn Dobson (1901-85)

By Cabris, Eric | British Art Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Life and Work of Henry Raeburn Dobson (1901-85)


Cabris, Eric, British Art Journal


[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM SHARPE III DOBSON

Introduction

in 2003, I bought a portrait of a 'Scottish Gentleman' (Pl 1) in Brussels, Belgium. The portrait was signed, but not dated. Because I could not completely identify the signature, besides the last name 'DOBSON', I consulted different dictionaries. (1) I noticed that the name Dobson is related to a family of Scottish portrait painters. I took a photograph of the signature to the National Portrait Gallery in London and compared it to signatures in the database of the National Portrait Gallery. The signature matched that of a Scottish portrait painter, Hebry Raeburn Dobson. (2) Searching the database, I found myself confronted with the first problem: the database only mentioned a date of birth (1901), but no biography.

Trained as an art historian, I asked myself who this painter could have been. Furthermore, I was wondering who the sitter could have been? How did a portrait of a Scottish Gentleman, painted by a Scottish painter, ended up in Brussels, Belgium. It was suggested to me that the Scottish Gentleman could be a portrait of a Scottish lord. However, why should a Scottish lord sell a family portrait in an auction house in Brussels (because it was in a Brussels auction house, that this portrait had originally been bought)? Besides his name and the year of his birth, very little was known about the painter and nothing whatsoever was known about the sitter. And so started nay initiative to research the life and work of Henry Raeburn Dobson. But with this paper it is not my intention to situate Henry Raeburn Dobson in the art movements of his time. I will leave that to researchers with more knowledge on Scottish Art. My only purpose is to write a first paper about his life and work. Unfortunately, Raeburn was not an intellectual, and he did write very little. Information about his life is scarce and most of the first-hand written information about this life consist of a few letters written by himself to his mother and his sister. (3) Most of the information I gathered comes from interviews with people who knew him. I asked myself three main questions:

1 Who was the painter?

2 Who was the sitter in the portrait of the 'Scottish Gentleman'?

3 What other paintings did the artist create?

In an attempt to answer the first question, I started to look for family members. I did this in a very traditional way: looking up the telephone directory. I was able to track down and get in touch with William Sharpe III (Bill), his sister Janette and brother Andrew Blackwood Dobson in the Edinburgh area. (4) They are Henry Raeburn's cousins once removed. They told me the painter was deceased, but did not know when he died. In fact, although they had known him in their childhood, the family did not know much about the life and work of Henry Raeburn. My interest in their great-uncle aroused their own curiosity and they assisted me in my research. Furthermore, I consulted the archives of the Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages of Scotland and the Census Record, as well as the National Archives at Registrar House in Edinburgh, the RAF Archives in London and the archives and records of different Art Schools, Art Galleries and Auction Houses in the UK. Ms Erika Ingham, of the National Portrait Gallery, was very kind in assisting me with my work.

Answering the second question seemed to be quite an impossible task. Therefore, I decided approach the task at hand pragmatically rather than academically by showing the picture of the unknown 'Scottish Gentleman' to as many people as possible. The tartan of the sitter, for example, might lead to his identification. Many suggestions were made but none led to the identification of the sitter. Lady Lemina Lawson-Johnston suggested that the tartan was that of the Hay Clan. The answer to this second question came when I found among Raeburn's papers a photograph of a second version of the portrait (Pl 2). …

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