NGS Acquires Rare Watercolour of a Black Milkmaid by David Allan

Posted in museums by Editor on January 5, 2022

From the press release (18 November 2021), via Art Daily:

David Allan, Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, ca. 1785–95, watercolour on paper, image size: 21 × 16 cm (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, D 5721, purchased 2019).

One of the earliest known images of a Black person by a Scottish artist has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan (1744–1796) is a beautifully painted watercolour, which is both exceptionally rare and striking. It depicts a Black woman alone and centre stage at a time when Black sitters more often appeared as marginal or subservient figures in group portraits.

Looking directly at the viewer, the woman is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties and set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street. Her name and life story is unknown, but it is likely that she was a servant, a milkmaid, as suggested by the large vessel or butter churn shown beside her.

Modest in scale, the image is dated to the mid-1780s to early 1790s, a period when Allan created evocative drawings of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Edinburgh, such as soldiers, coalmen, fishwives, sedan chair porters, firemen, and officers of the city guard. These works, known as Allan’s ‘Edinburgh Characters’, suggest a background context for Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, but they are generally sketched in a summary way, intended to capture character types, rather than specific personalities, and were often copied and duplicated. The Edinburgh Milkmaid, however, is highly detailed, precisely painted, and clearly a portrait of a specific person. It is hoped that further research may reveal more about the connection between the artist and the young woman and shed some light on her identity.

Director of European and Scottish Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, Christopher Baker, commented: “We are so pleased to bring this remarkable, rare, and extraordinary watercolour into Scotland’s national collection. It is an incredibly striking and special work, one which we believe will be enjoyed by many and, we hope, lead to new research on its background and most importantly the story of the woman depicted.”

Born in Alloa, David Allan was arguably the first Scottish artist to take contemporary life and customs from across the social hierarchy as a subject worthy of art. With the support of his patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart of Shaw Park, near Alloa, he travelled to Italy around 1767 and remained there for a decade, painting historical pictures and portraits. He became interested in drawing scenes of street life, inspired by the popular print tradition of depicting street criers who called out to advertise their produce or trades. He sketched street vendors, aristocrats on the Grand Tour, coffee house scenes, dances, carnivals, and local costume in Rome and Naples and on a visit to the islands of Procida, Ischia, and Minorca.

These experiences led Allan to take a similar approach after his return to Scotland in 1779. He drew his subject matter from contemporary life, ranging from specific events such as The Ceremony of Laying the Foundation Stone of the New College of Edinburgh (1789) to timeless traditions and customs, such as A Highland Dance and The Penny Wedding. In 1786 Allan was appointed to a teaching post as Master of the Trustees’ Academy and he settled permanently in Edinburgh. The city and its inhabitants became a particular focus for this work. From about 1788 he developed the series of over twenty drawings of workers and traders; often referred to as his ‘Edinburgh Characters’, they typically show an individual or pair of figures with the tools of their trade, set against a simple architectural or rural background.

Allan’s subjects range from higher status figures, such as a Highland officer in uniform and officers of the Town Guard, to those who did the city’s heavy labour, such as the coalmen, chimney sweeps, porters, and water carriers. Female workers are represented by a fishwife, a salt vendor, and a lacemaker. The figures are drawn with strong outlines in ink to enable them to be traced easily, as Allan made multiple versions of his character drawings, several of which are held in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. He also reproduced his Edinburgh characters on a smaller scale as the cast that populate his landscape views of the Royal Mile, such as High Street from the Netherbow, made in 1793. Seen as a group, Allan’s street characters give a broad and fascinating insight into late 1780s Edinburgh as a living, working city.

Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn is one of several notable acquisitions highlighted in the recently published NGS Annual Review, covering the years 2019–2021. The painting will go on display at a later date following some conservation work, which is currently being prepared. With much still unknown about the painting, the Galleries would welcome information, comments, or feedback about it.

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