Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Red chalk on paper
  • 14 × 9 ½ inches · 355 × 240 mm
  • Inscribed on the bottom: ‘R 7 April 1793’ 


  • By collateral family descent from the artist; 
  • to the family of John Murray Thomson RSA RSW PSSA (1885-1974);
  • By descent to 2017; 
  • Private collection, UK to 2024


  • Stephen Lloyd, Raeburn’s Rival: Archibald Skirving 1749-1819, Edinburgh, 1999, p.20, illustrated (as ‘location unknown’).

This sensitive red chalk portrait drawing was made by Archibald Skirving in Rome and is dated 7th April 1793. Almost certainly depicting a British Grand Tourist, this beautifully handled sheet is one of the most ambitious drawings by Skirving to survive from his Roman period. In its technique, it shows how indebted Skirving was to the presence of French artists working in the city. The hugely sophisticated handling of red chalk is untypical of British artists in the period and suggests that Skirving may have spent time at the Académie de France à Rome. Skirving’s ambitious, ad vivum portrait shows a prosperous man in middle age, starkly posed in profile, producing a remarkably compelling testament to the culture of trans-national exchange which characterised late eighteenth-century Rome.

Archibald Skirving began his career as a junior clerk in the Edinburgh customs office. He is likely to have spent a period at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, where Charles Pavillon was master from 1768 to 1772. In 1777 Skirving moved to London where he had various letters of introduction, including one to John Hamilton Mortimer. He is recorded exhibiting work at the Royal Academy in 1778, where he is described as a miniature painter lodging ‘at Mrs Milward's, Little Brook Street, Hanover Square.’[1] In 1786 he left for Italy, settling in Rome where he practiced as a portraitist, particularly in miniature, and acted as agent for a number of visiting tourists.

By 1790 he was living on via Babuino, in the heart of Rome’s international artistic community. Skirving naturally gravitated towards the community of Scottish artists and travellers resident in Rome. He made a powerful pastel portrait of the Scottish artist, archaeologist and antiquary Gavin Hamilton, which is now in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Skirving was further commissioned to make a miniature copy of the portrait for the Scottish lawyer and judge Francis Garden, Lord Gardenstoun who was in Rome in 1788. Thanks to a letter Skirving wrote to his brother in India in December 1790 we know he spent five months in Naples and where he made a pastel portrait of Sir William Hamilton and copied works in his collection. Skirving appears in the diary of Anne Flaxman, wife of the sculptor John Flaxman. She mentions that he started a portrait of her husband in October 1791. A red chalk drawing of Father James McCormick an Irish Franciscan at Saint Isidore’s College on the Pincian, placing Skirving at the heart of the small but important community of Hibernian Catholics living in the city.

We do have immediate context for the present drawing in the form of other works made by Skirving in April 1793. A remarkable sheet of four studies of a plaster leg seen from four different angles and made using four different chalks survives in the National Gallery of Scotland. The sheet is dated by Skirving ‘Rome 5th April 1793’, two days before the present portrait. Stephen Lloyd has suggested that it may have been made at the Académie de France à Rome.[2] 

Archibald Skirving
A Leg. Drawn from a Cast
Red and black chalk on pale blue paper
9 ½ x 14 inches; 243 x 356 mm
Dated 5th April 1793
National Galleries of Scotland

Based in Palazzo Mancini on the Corso, the Académie offered artists of all nationalities a dedicated space in which to draw from casts after the antique, rather than contending with the difficulties of sketching in the city’s museums and palaces. Skirving’s drawing clearly shows studies after a plaster cast, rather than the antique prototype, it also shows Skirving practicing with four different chalks, two red and two black, including the darker sanguine which he uses in the present portrait drawing. The choice of red chalk not only for this portrait, but for a beautiful sequence of landscape studies made on the outskirts of Rome, is highly suggestive. Sanguine was not in wide use amongst British artists, it is a medium particularly associated with French artists working in the city both for figurative work and landscape. Hubert Robert working in the 1760s and Joseph-Benoît Suvée working in the 1770s made large bodies of Roman landscapes in sanguine chalk. Skirving’s French contemporaries were more severely neo-classical, they included David’s pupil, François-Xavier Fabre and Louis Gauffier.

It is not just the use of sanguine chalk, the whole conception of the portrait points to Skirving’s awareness of French drawing practice. Skirving shows the sitter in profile, his elegant features articulated by the regular shading of the sanguine chalk; a technique regularly used by French draughtsman. The use of profile suggests Skirving’s interest in the work of Flaxman and others he may have encountered in Rome. The drawing itself is beautifully refined, capturing the prosperous looking sitter with an even, controlled line and modulated with a refined network of hatching. The portrait belongs to a small, refined body of figure studies made in Rome.

Archibald Skirving
The Fontana dei Cavalli Marini in the Borghese Gardens, Rome
Red chalk on paper
7 ⅞ x 10 ⅞ inches; 200 x 277 mm
c. 1791 - 1794
National Galleries of Scotland

James Ward after Sir Joshua Reynolds
Sir William Forbes, 6th Baronet of Monymusk and Pitsligo
13 ¾ × 13 ¾ inches; 349 × 349 mm
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Accession number B1977.14.9938

The present drawing is closest to Skirving’s masterful portrait of British Tourists in Rome also dated 1792; a work which has long been regarded as a powerful demonstration of Skirving’s abilities as a draughtsman. Similar in style to the present drawing, the ambitious sheet shows a husband and wife in profile with a frontal portrait of their son.[3] The precise technique – particularly the strong lateral hatching – the isolated portraits, the sitters are detached from their surroundings, has invited comparison with the later portrait drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres of visitors to Rome.[4] In 1792 Skirving met Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo the banker and author. Forbes was travelling with his wife, Elizabeth and a daughter, also called Elizabeth.[5] Forbes described Skirving as ‘a very ingenious artist’ and his journal records that Skirving furnished him with letters of introduction to artists working in Naples, including the German portrait painter Johann Henirich Wilhelm Tischbein and the Italian landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri. From Forbes’s surviving journal we know that they were spending time together in April 1793. On 30th April, he noted: ‘Skirving, another old acquaintance from Edinburgh, paints small portraits with considerable merit but he takes so much time and bestows so much labour in finishing his pieces that he can never do much – indeed can scarcely live by his art.’[6] On this basis Stephen Lloyd has speculated that the present drawing might be a portrait of Forbes. The surviving portraits of Forbes by Henry Raeburn and Thomas Lawrence show him to have been a handsome man with a long straight nose and similarly dolichocephalic, with a high forehead and hairline. As in the present drawing, he is invariably shown wearing his own hair, powdered. The present drawing remained in Skirving’s possession and descended collaterally in his family. It was reproduced in Stephen Lloyd’s 1999 Scottish National Portrait Gallery catalogue as ‘location unknown.’

This engaging sketch is a welcome addition to Skirving’s small Roman oeuvre. The masterly drawing, executed with economic precision and a technical confidence which Skirving refined for his grander portraits, demonstrating his skill and importance as a major European neo-classical draughtsman.

Archibald Skirving
Chalk on paper
28 ⅛ x 21 ⅝ inches; 714 x 549 mm
National Galleries of Scotland


  1. For Skirving see: Stephen Lloyd, Raeburn’s Rival: Archibald Skirving 1749-1819, exh. cat., Edinburgh (Scottish National Portrait Gallery), 1999. 
  2. Stephen Lloyd, Raeburn’s Rival: Archibald Skirving 1749-1819, exh. cat., Edinburgh (Scottish National Portrait Gallery), 1999, p.21
  3. Eds. Andrew Wilton and Ilaria Bignamini, Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 1996, cat. no. 55, p.103. 
  4. See Stephen Lloyd, Raeburn’s Rival: Archibald Skirving 1749-1819, exh. cat., Edinburgh (Scottish National Portrait Gallery), 1999, pp.18-22.
  5. For Forbes see ed. John Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, New Haven and London, 1997, pp.364-5.
  6. Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Forbes Journal Ms.29; quoted in Basil Skinner, ‘Archibald Skirving and his Work’, Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian Field Naturalists Society, vol.XII, 1970, p.49.