Anne Forbes (1745-1834) was one of the first Scottish women artists to work professionally as a painter. She followed the example of Catherine Read (1723-1778) in pursuing professional training with some of Europe’s finest artists, and Forbes set up her own business in London as a portraitist.
Forbes was the granddaughter of the painter William Aikman (1682-1731). Although he died before she was born, she inherited his paintbox and perhaps some of his passion for art. Her place of birth is unknown but by 1767 she was living in Edinburgh together with her widowed mother. She received help from a family friend, Robert Chalmers to train as an artist. He and others funded her education, sending her to Rome along with her mother. There she studied oil painting with the great Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton, as well as another Scottish painter James Nevay, with whom she may have been romantically involved. She was apparently a bit of a sensation in Rome, attracting a lot of attention by her gender and talent. However she never learnt Italian, which limited her career there and curtailed her studies.
Hence, early in 1771 she returned to Edinburgh with her brother John. The following year she moved to London where she showed at the Royal Academy and set up a studio. Initially she was a success, attracting many commissions, with the support of people she had met in Italy and from fellow Scots. However, then the pressures on her multiplied. She struggled to finish the works she had been commissioned to paint. She was too poor to hire an assistant to fill in the less important parts of her paintings. By October 1772, she had earned £246 but spent £500 in expenses. She blamed her customers for failing to turn up for sittings. The initial novelty of a woman painter seemed to wear off quickly and rather than a curiosity she became something of a social outcast. Her appeal did not extend beyond the small circle of Scottish expatriates. She struggled to get more commissions even as she couldn’t complete the ones she had.
As a result of her long hours of work and the stress she was under, she fell ill in late 1772. Only a return to Edinburgh allowed her to recover. In Scotland, she continued to paint but in a less commercially demanding atmosphere and earning less money. She produced portraits and conversation-pieces for Scottish patrons. In addition, she taught painting, which was a more socially acceptable occupation for a woman. David Allan, one of the leading painters of his time, produced a portrait of her in 1781, now in the National Gallery of Scotland. In 1788 she was appointed to the position of official portrait painter to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. She never married and lived a long life, dying in 1834.
Forbes deserves respect as a pioneer in the face of gender expectations, and for making a living from art for her entire life. But she is not quite in the first rank of portrait painters. She lacks the ability of Allan Ramsay to conjure up three dimensional space through lighting effects: her images are essentially flat. In contrast to Ramsay’s mastery of fabric and hair, Forbes paints with a metaphorical broad brush, lacking virtuosity when it comes to portraying fabric and hair. The effect of her work can be somewhat cartoonish: certainly she is skilled at summing up a subject’s character, as with the bullish Patrick McDouall-Crichton (1726–1803), 6th Earl of Dumfries.
She shows more psychological insight with her portraits of women: she painted Dumfries’s wife Margaret in a thoughtful, informal pose, holding a book and wearing an exotic turban. Forbes’s portrait shows this is a woman of intelligence and sensitivity, an intimacy that goes beyond the requirements of formal portraiture. There is also an appealing portrait of Elizabeth Penelope Crichton, holding a lamb. These works are all in the recently-restored Dumfries House, Cumnock, East Ayrshire, by architect Robert Adam.
Forbes’s picture of Lady Anne Stewart (1774) is just as striking: it shows both strength and sensitivity. As with many of Ramsay’s picture, Stewart is at our eye level and looks straight at us, establishing intimacy with naturalistic detail. But also striking are the black borders on her hat and shawl: these dominate the surface of the painting, emphasising the flatness of the picture plane in their bold forms. The image is graphically striking in its black and white colouring, yet still a psychologically acute portrait. It is not surprising that a pioneering woman should show such insight into other women sitters.
Anne Forbes, Lady Anne Stewart, 1774.
Oil on canvas, 75 x 62 cm.
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.