Andrew Robertson:   Miniature Painting Innovator

By the Regency, Andrew Robertson was one of the most prominent painters of miniature portraits in all of Britain. This was due in large part to the fact that he painted in a style very different from the majority of the miniaturists who had come before him. His distinctive portrait style was enhanced because he had developed a new formula for his paint which enabled him to capture his subjects with more realism and with deeper, richer colors. Though some people still preferred miniature portraits in the old style, there were many who found Robertson’s miniature portraits much more compelling.

How Andrew Robertson transformed miniature portraiture . . .

The youngest of the five sons of William and Jean Robertson, Andrew Robertson was born at Drumnahoy, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 14 October 1777. It is not clear whether William Robertson worked as a draughtsman and architect or as a cabinet-maker in order to support his family, but he was gainfully employed. Two of his older sons, Archibald and Alexander, were both trained as artists in Edinburgh. But the youngest son, Andrew, was intended for the medical profession. The young man studied and took his degree in medicine at Marischal College in Aberdeen. However, it seems that young Andrew had an interest in art, particularly drawing and painting, and his elder brother, Archibald, provided his little brother with art lessons whenever he could.

In 1791, Archibald and Alexander Robertson heard there were opportunities for artists in the growing United States of America. The two brothers left Scotland and traveled to New York City to seek their fortunes. Unfortunately, about a year later, William Robertson became incapacitated in some way and was no longer able to work to support his family. His youngest son, Andrew, felt it was then his responsibility to support his parents and siblings. But he believed his best chance of doing so was to turn his full attention to art, perhaps because he preferred art to medicine. He may also have been hoping that his departed elder brothers’ reputations would help him to establish himself as a painter more quickly than trying to set up as a doctor. In order to develop his basic skills, Andrew attended drawing classes with Alexander Nasmyth in Edinburgh, beginning in 1792. Fortunately, at about that same time, Robertson was befriended by the talented Scottish portrait painter and miniaturist, Henry Raeburn, who lent him portraits to copy. Seeing the young man’s talent, Raeburn also allowed him to be present for some of his portrait sittings and even gave him a small space in his studio where he could practise. To bring in extra money while he was studying and developing his own clientele, Andrew Robertson also worked as a scene and set painter at various Edinburgh theatres.

By 1797, Robertson was able to attend life drawing classes at the Royal Scottish Academy. There he learned the finer points of figure drawing, which further enhanced his skill as a portraitist. In addition, his older brother, Archibald, who had decided to settle in America, began sending Andrew a series of long letters which included hand-written and hand-drawn instructional materials on drawing, the use of watercolors and miniature painting. In 1801, Robertson walked to London in order to view the exhibition at the Royal Academy that year. While in the metropolis, he initially associated primarily with other painters from Scotland. But he soon made the acquaintance of a number of prominent artists in the city, including Benjamin West, who commissioned a portrait from him and encouraged him to remain in London. With the support of William Hamilton and Martin Archer Shee, Robertson was able to enter the art school run by the Royal Academy, where he continued to hone his skills in both drawing and painting. Within a year, his work was so good that he was invited to exhibit at both the Royal Academy and Watercolour Society shows, which he would continue to do for the next four decades.

In the early nineteenth century, as they had been through much of the eighteenth century, miniature portrait paintings were often disparaged by many serious professional artists. Such professionals generally saw miniature painters as an avaricious lot with little skill who could quickly knock off mediocre trinkets for fast money. At that time, most miniatures were painted in watercolor, while oils were considered to be the superior medium for true art. During the course of his studies at the Royal Academy, Andrew Robertson was determined to find a way to improve the perception of miniature painting. He is reported to have said, " Oval miniatures [are] at best but toys. I should like to aspire to paint pictures." Even of the work of Richard Cosway, one of the most prominent miniature paintings of the time, Robertson said, "They are pretty things, but not pictures. No nature, coloring, or force. They are too much like each other to be like the originals."

Most miniatures during that time were indeed pretty things, as they were intended to flatter the subject and were very often set into a brooch or locket when they were finished. These small portraits were usually painted in soft, delicate colors with very fine brush strokes. The best miniatures were painted with watercolors on thin sheets of ivory, while lesser quality miniatures were painted on small pieces of parchment or vellum. The smooth surface of these supports provided no texture to the finished paintings or any opportunity for the artist to build up any depth of color with thin watercolors. But Andrew Robertson found a way to change that. He blended gum arabic into his watercolor paints, which had the effect of making them thicker, so that they would behave more like oil paints. Thus, the paints could be laid down more thickly, resulting in deeper colors, and the thicker paints would also allow the artist to build up some texture on the surface of the painting, giving it more of the appearance of an oil painting. It is believed that Robertson may have gotten the idea of blending gum arabic into his watercolors from his early mentor, Henry Raeburn. However, Robertson developed the formula more fully, particularly with regard to its use in the painting of miniature portraits.

Andrew Robertson’s superiority as a miniature portrait painter did not rest solely on the special formula he used for his paints. He also had a superior talent for drawing, which enabled him to capture his subject’s likeness more accurately than most other miniaturists. The anatomical studies he made during the course of taking his medical degree further enhanced the accuracy of his figure drawings. Robertson had a natural charm and gift for conversation that quickly put his sitters at their ease. Combined with his powerful observational skills, which facilitated his understanding of their character and personality, he was able to weave much of each sitter’s intangible qualities into his portraits. He also had a good eye for texture, which he was able reproduce in his miniatures, further adding to their realistic appearance. His work was very different than most of the miniature portraits that were being painted at that time.

Since he painted with broader, more powerful brush strokes, laying down large splashes of deep, dramatic color, Robertson worked in a somewhat larger format than most miniature painters of the time. By so doing, he was able to convey a greater sense of volume for his figures, and set them against a more dramatic background. By using a strong light source, Robertson gave his paintings a compelling expansiveness that imparted a monumental presence to his subjects. These diminutive portraits in rich colors, detailed textures and dramatic backgrounds actually had the appearance of small oil paintings. Which was still in keeping with the concept of a miniature. Miniature portraits evolved from the tiny paintings used to illuminate manuscripts during the Middle Ages. What is not widely known is that the term "miniature" derived not from the word "minute," meaning small, but from minium, the Latin word for the red lead used by medieval illustrators. Therefore, though Andrew Robertson painted pocket-sized portraits, they did still qualify as miniatures, even if few of them could be set into a brooch or a locket.

Andrew Robertson soon became known as an artist who was able to paint the most realistic and striking miniature portraits of any artist in Britain. In December of 1805, he was appointed miniature painter to H. R. H. the Duke of Sussex and by February of 1807, he was invited to Windsor Castle to paint the portraits of the Prince of Wales, as well as several other members of the royal family, including the royal princesses. In 1810, when Princess Amelia was known to be dying, Robertson was recalled to Windsor by King George III, who wanted the artist to paint a copy of the portrait he had painted of the King’s favorite daughter in 1807. The grieving King wanted a realistic portrait of his beloved daughter by which to remember her, and Robertson was more than willing, as he had always thought her a most "lovely creature." In 1812, Robertson was invited to paint a miniature portrait of the Prince Regent.

Naturally, Robertson’s work for the royal family soon brought him to the attention of the British upper classes, and it was not long before many of them were commissioning miniature portraits from him. However, not all of his sitters were happy with the portraits he painted of them. Though a charming, gracious and talented man, Robertson never felt the need to flatter his subjects, particularly the female ones, as did other miniature painters of the time. He always strove to capture the most realistic likeness of his subject, with no regard to prevailing fashions or the vanity of his sitter. Therefore, even before the Regency began, though Robertson was a sought-after painter, he was more often commissioned to paint miniature portraits of men than of women. There were those who thought the rich tones, masterly force and honesty of his portraits was not appropriate to women.

Because Robertson’s very detailed and realistic miniatures required much more labor and significantly more sittings than most other miniaturists, he knew it was costing him commissions. Therefore, over time he developed two different styles of miniature portrait painting. That very realistic but labor-intensive style he reserved only for those "connoisseurs" who wanted the best he could offer. For the general market, he developed a quicker, simpler, less robust style which he could execute with less effort, fewer sittings and at a lower cost. But even these miniatures which were targeted at the general public were still of a higher quality than many of the miniatures churned out by the run-of-the-mill miniature painters in Regency London.

In 1815, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s abdication, Andrew Robertson was one of many Britons who traveled to France. He spent at least a couple of months in Paris so that he would be able to view the many works of art which had been accumulated by Bonaparte, prior to their dispersal and return to their countries of origin. Not long after his return to England, Robertson became extremely ill. He was unable to work for several weeks, but eventually, he recovered and was again able to accept commissions for miniature portraits. He continued to work until his retirement in 1841, though he did participate in one more exhibit for the Royal Academy in 1842. He died in Hampstead, on 6 December 1845, at the age of sixty-eight.

It must be noted that Andrew Robertson’s interest in art was not confined to painting. He was also a talented musician who had learned to play the violin in his youth. He remained a devote of the instrument for the rest of his life. In addition, at the age of sixteen, he served as the Director of Concerts at Aberdeen. He continued to be a distinguished amateur violinist during his life in London, and attended concerts whenever he could. However, he did not have the time to become involved in concert direction as he had in his youth, since his London painting practice continued to flourish and grow. He was also taking on students, which added to the demands on his time.

Andrew Robertson was married twice. Little is known of his first wife beyond her first name, Jenny. She seems to have died quite young, possibly in childbirth. She was survived by her husband and two children. Sometime after that, Andrew married Ann Phillips Boxill, the daughter of Samuel Boxill of Waterford, Barbados. Andrew had two more children with his second wife. Robertson and his second wife were also involved in various philanthropic efforts, particularly in aid of his fellow Scotsmen. By one of those efforts, he was a founder of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, a school and residential home for Scottish orphans in London. Later, he became the Vice-president of the Artists’ Benevolent Institution, a position he held until his death.

During the Regency, Andrew Robertson was one of the most prominent miniature portrait painters in London. By then, he had developed his two styles of portraiture, the more expensive being the very labor-intensive, but also the most realistic and the most like an oil painting. His more popular style enabled him to produce miniatures at a lower cost for those who preferred a less realistic, simpler, more quickly executed image. Unlike the French miniature portrait painter, Simon-Jacques Rochard, who settled in London in 1816, Andrew Robertson tended to paint more miniature portraits of men than of women. Rochard made every effort to flatter his feminine subjects, while Robertson did his best to be accurate and true-to-life in his portraits. Though Robertson painted mostly men, there were some women who were willing to eschew fashion and flattery for an accurate portrait. Such women were happy to sit for Andrew Robertson.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know something about Andrew Robertson, might he, or one of his miniature portraits, find a place in an upcoming romance? Perhaps the hero requests that his betrothed have her miniature portrait painted by Andrew Robertson. Will she pitch a fit because she knows that particular artist will make no effort to flatter her? Or, will she be one of those women who cares nothing for fashion and is flattered that her beloved wants an accurate likeness of her? On the other hand, will the heroine be particularly pleased because her hero has given her a miniature portrait of himself painted by Andrew Robertson because he knows she will want a true picture of him? Then again, might the heroine be an orphaned young woman from Scotland, befriended by Andrew Robertson and his family? Will he offer her assistance, perhaps even sharing his secret of using gum arabic in his watercolors with her? Or, might she be a guest in his home for a dance in which he provides the music on his fiddle? How else might Andrew Robertson and his work make an appearance in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Andrew Robertson:   Miniature Painting Innovator

  1. plot bunny that comes to mind is that a young girl and her family take him in to stay overnight on his long walk from Scotland and he paints a portrait of her as a child. When he is famous, and she is having a Season she mentions innocently that he has painted her and is ridiculed by other young ladies who haven’t a hope. The hero believes her, and as he knows Robertson asks the painter if he will paint another which secures him in the heart of the heroine and turns the other girls green

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