The life and work of Henry Raeburn Dobson (1901-85).

Author:Cabris, Eric





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). The name of the Scottish Gentleman was written on the reverse 'Kevin Connolly'. (5)

Finding an answer to the third question was a rather tedious job. Henry Raeburn was essentially a portrait painter and worked by commission and so his portraits are mainly to be found in private homes. Finding them was essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. However, Janette Dobson eased considerably my search by pointing me in the right direction and by initially introducing me to some exquisite portraits Raeburn had painted in Belgium. The 'High Life de Belgique' (6) was a useful tool in tracing the owners of the portraits. Bill, Janette and Andrew Dobson also introduced me to ofther members of the artist's family, including Andrew Njal Dobson--another cousin--and to Sir Douglas and Cameron Morpeth, who are nephews of Raeburn (in this paper I will refer to Henry Raeburn Dobson as Raeburn, which is how he was known to his family and friends). (7) They introduced me to friends and acquaintances in Scotland and England, who owned pictures by Raeburn. Mr Cameron Morpeth was so kind to let me read some letters by Raeburn and to show me a collection of photographs of portraits by the artist. (8) Frangoise Carton de Tournai (Brussels) introduced me to her family and friends who own portraits by Raeburn.

The family

Henry Raeburn Dobson, born Edinburgh on 29 May 1901, died Edinburgh on 22 May 1985 at the age of 83, (9) who was to become a fine society portrait painter, was born into a not-so-well-to-do middle class family with roots in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. His father, Henry John Dobson (1858-1928) (Pl 3), (10) was himself a Scottish genre and portrait painter from Dalry. His grandfather, Thomas Dobson, was a wool merchant (11) in the town of Kirkcudbright. It is said in the family that there was a Dobson wool mill in Dairy, and maybe this mill was owned and run by Thomas. Henry John did not keep the family tradition of running the family wool business, in order to become a painter. It would appear he paid a price for his choice. Family legend has it that Thomas Dobson disowned his son and Henry John's whole life would be marked by financial difficulties. (12) Henry John married Jeanie Charlotte Hannah Cowan (Pl 4) on 17 September 1890 in Dalry (13) and in order for him to practise his art (and because there were more opportunities for paintings portraits in the Scottish capital) they later moved to a house in Edinburgh. Raeburn was born there at 9 Merchiston Crescent (14) in a house that is said to have had at least '7 rooms with one or more windows'. (15) At that time, the family had an in-house servant, Barbara Sutherland.

As a portrait painter, Henry John did not have much success and so he started to paint Scottish genre paintings in the style of Thomas Faed (1826-1900), Henry Wright Kerr (1857-1936) and David Wilkie (1785-1841). These scenes were especially popular in the Unites States and Canada, where they were often printed on tin biscuit boxes. Because Henry John often had difficulties paying the rent, the family moved house quite often. It is said that he actually lived from hand to mouth and that it was mainly due to the household skills of his wife Jeannie that the family kept going. (16)

Raeburn was the youngest of four children. The oldest child was Thomas Stanley, born in 1892, named after his grandfather, and known as Stanley. 17 He became an actor, but worked for and art dealer, Robertson, in London. (18) David Cowan (after his mother's maiden name) was born in 1894 and was known as Cowan Dobson, a well known society portrait painter. Although he painted some very fine portraits of well known men, like Earl Attlee, Earl Beatty and Harold Wilson, he mainly portrayed 'fashionable ladies'. (19) The only sister was Louisa Rankin, born in 1896 and known as Louie (Pl 5). She had an intense family bond with her younger brother and--together with mother Jeannie--looked after him her whole life long. She married Robert Morpeth, and these are the parents of Sir Douglas Morpeth of Shamley Green, Surrey, who cared for Raeburn in his old age and who was a valuable source of information for this paper. Raeburn was, of course, given the name after the famous 18th-century Scottish portrait painter Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), whom his father admired hugely.

The school years

Despite Henry John's financial precariousness, he sent his children to good local school although little is known about Raeburn's school days. His first years of formal education were spent at Gillespie's', in Edinburgh where he and Louisa were enrolled together, on 5 September 1906. (20) The family then lived at 4 Glengyle Terrace, Edinburgh. Raeburn left Gillespie's on 18 July 1911 to attend the prestigious George Watson's College, also in Edinburgh (the family attached much importance to good education), (21) and at that time the school was based near Lauriston Place in the centre of the city (in 1932 George Watson's College moved to present building in Colinton Road, outside the city centre). Raeburn was admitted to George Watson's College on 26 September 1911 (Pl 6, P1 7) and he left the school in July 1917, to attend Art College (according to the school's archives). (22) In his last year at the College (his fifth) he studied English, History, Mathematics, Latin and French, his best subjects being the latter two. Drawing was then only taught to boys up to the fourth year but his art teacher at Watson's was Ralph W Hay (23) who was a pioneer of the Modern Movement in Scotland. (24) Hay was one of the first to break away from the traditional 19th-century way of teaching drawing and was all in favour of colour, decoration and the expression of fantasy. This may explain why Raeburn's portraits--in contrast to his brother's portraits--are more colourful.

There is one odd circumstance which has been noted in his records. Henry left the school without warning in July 1912 to attend Mr A Miller Inglis' School for Boys, Maidenhead...

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