The life-size portrait shows Lieutenant-Colonel Bryce McMurdo in a Scottish landscape setting. Little is known of the sitter but for the fact that he lived at Mavis Grove near Dumfries and married Jane Otway of Sevenoaks, Kent, in 1802. This full-length portrait may have been painted not long after his marriage. McMurdo is shown fishing on the banks of a stream. Wallets for storing fishing tackle can be seen in his upturned hat while between his feet rests a small basket or creel for keeping live fish.
Sir Henry Raeburn was largely a self-taught artist who, after an apprenticeship with a goldsmith, set himself up in Edinburgh and by 1776 was painting portraits in oils. He visited London in 1785 and went to Italy that same year with letters of introduction from Sir Joshua Reynolds. After a two-year sojourn he returned to Edinburgh where he soon established himself as Scotland’s leading portrait painter. In the 1790s and early 1800s, when this painting was executed, Raeburn commanded a near monopoly over Edinburgh’s fashionable portrait production. However, there is evidence of considerable conflict with other local artists and, despite his success, Raeburn was declared bankrupt in 1808. Bryce McMurdo’s portrait may date from the flurry of professional activity that followed this misfortune. The difficulty of pinpointing the exact chronology of Raeburn’s paintings can be attributed largely to the fact that he rarely dated his work and that none of his sitter books or ledgers survive. Yet it also owes much to the fact that Raeburn painted concurrently with a variety of different techniques.
This painting demonstrates the artist’s wide vocabulary of brushstrokes; from the broad application of light and shade on McMurdo’s clothing to the fine detail of his wicker creel; from the horizontal dragging of dry white paint to suggest the water’s shimmering surface to the feathery wet-on-wet strokes used to depict the sitter’s hair.
Viccy Coltman and Stephen Lloyd (eds.), Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation, Edinburgh 2012.