Laughable: Raeburn’s “Rev. Robert Walker”

detail of Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

Hello friend! Allow me to introduce you to the Reverend Robert Walker, who happens to be skating:

Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

Hee-hee! Does this portrait make you giggle, too? I like it. It manages to be formal and full of decorum and funny at the same time. The full title is The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. Sir Henry Raeburn paints Walker with sharp detail. The Reverend seems to be a thoroughly solemn man: determination on his face, harsh black clothing, arms crossed. He is presented in profile, a formal pose for portraits used on coins from Roman times to all the way to our modern penny.

Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

The landscape is bleak. Grey, brown, cold. But I suppose a frozen lake in Scotland is as good a setting as any for a comedy. For there, on Duddingston Loch, the minister skates. On one foot.

Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

I can see arcs in the ice where skates have cut grooves. The rest of the background is muddied. I can’t tell where the ice ends and the earth begins, or what is behind him or what the sky even looks like. I can’t tell what time of day it is. The contrast between the boldly painted Rev. Walker and the foggy impressionistic background makes our skater friend pop out from his surroundings. It is almost like he is collaged or photoshopped onto the loch. (He isn’t. This is an oil painting from the 1790s.)

In my research, I happened across this 25 second video on YouTube that animates the humor of this painting:

That clip had a bit of Monty Python flavor to it, but I think the Reverend Walker reminds me most of Mary Poppins. Both seem absolutely interested in good behavior, but unexpectedly enchanting. The stern nanny dressed in black, floating from an umbrella. The stern minister dressed in black, skating with his leg in the air.   Neither willing to admit to any silliness, at all.

I don’t know if Sir Henry Raeburn meant for this picture to be funny. The Wikipedia article on Rev. Robert Walker discusses where he learned to skate and his membership in the world’s first figure skating club. Another source mentions how this particular posture indicates that our dear skater was quite good. Apparently, it is difficult to carry yourself in this position without losing balance. I wouldn’t really know, as here in central Texas there are not very many frozen ponds. And by that I mean there are none at all. I cannot find any other portraits from this era with the subject employing the transportation mode of ice skating in the picture. A more traditional way of expressing the sitter’s love for an activity might have simply been to have him posed while holding his skates, or cleaning them, or with them hanging on hook on the wall behind him.

Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

I went searching to learn more about Raeburn’s sense of humor, and found a scan of an old book which claimed that the artist’s “varied knowledge, his agreeable manners, his numerous anecdotes, and his general conversation, at once easy and unaffected, with now and then a touch of humorous gaiety, made him a delightful companion.” In another chapter the author compares Raeburn’s personal interactions to his work:

“His conversation might be said in some degree to resemble his style of painting—there was the same ease and simplicity, the same total absence of affectation of every kind, and the same manly turn of sense and genius. But we are not aware that the humorous gaiety and sense of the ludicrous, which often enlivened his conversation, ever guided his pencil.”

Hmmm….I think I disagree. I think this portrait is enlivened by humor.

Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

Do you think Raeburn meant to be funny? What art has made you laugh? If you had someone paint your portrait, what would you want to include?

For a quick illustrated history of portraiture, click here.

To see another Raeburn painting I think is a bit funny, check out the horse’s rump on the Met’s site. Makes me wonder if the gentleman next to him was a…um, well, never mind.

William Raeburn, Andrew. The Life of Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. with Portraits and Appendix. London: W.H. Allen and Co. Web. 6 April 2014.  https://archive.org/details/cu31924008748240

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2 thoughts on “Laughable: Raeburn’s “Rev. Robert Walker”

  1. Thanks Elysia! I’ve never seen this piece before but I do like it. He seems like he’s got a good sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

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