(Born Stockbridge [now a district of Edinburgh], 4 March 1756; died Edinburgh, 8 July 1823). The leading Scottish portrait painter of his period. He was the first major Scottish painter to work largely in his own country, and his portraits create a superb visual record of a golden age of culture and society in Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a goldsmith and he appears to have been largely self-taught as a painter. In 1784–6 he visited Italy (going via London, where he is said to have met Reynolds), but his distinctive style was already largely formed by this time. He painted directly on to the canvas without preliminary drawings, and his bold, vigorous handling—sometimes called his ‘square touch’—could be extraordinarily effective in conveying the character of bluff legal worthies or rugged Highland chiefs (The MacNab, c.1810, Diageo plc, on loan to Kelvingrove AG, Glasgow). He could also be remarkably sensitive when painting women (Isabella McLeod, Mrs James Gregory, c.1798, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, NT), and he had a penchant for vivid and original lighting effects (William Glendonwyn, c.1795, Fitzwilliam Mus., Cambridge).

Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)

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