Rare 18th-Century Watercolor Depicting Black Woman Acquired by National Galleries of Scotland


A young black woman stands in
David Allan, Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, ca. 1785COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERIES SCOTLAND

Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn (ca. 1785), by artist David Allan, is thought to be one of the first images of a Black subject ever created in Scotland. Now, it has a home: the National Galleries of Scotland, a consortium of five Scottish galleries in Edinburgh.

Starting in 1785, Allan created a series of paintings and drawings where he chronicled the ordinary people of Edinburgh, from soldiers to sedan chair porters and butter churners. By the time Allan began this project, titled “Edinburgh Characters,” he had already rose to prominence painting classical scenes like Cleopatra Weeping Over the Ashes of Mark Antony (1771) and Hector’s Farewell from Andromache (1773).

Having lived abroad in Rome and London for much of his life, he returned to Scotland in 1780 where he would commit himself to illustrating common folk and illustrating quaint scenes and poems. During this period he primarily worked in watercolors and aquatint, a printmaking technique, as opposed to oils. The National Galleries of Scotland owns many of his works.

In this watercolor, a woman stands barefoot in the middle of an old Scottish street, smiling gently with one hand on her hip. The National Galleries of Scotland said that there was little known about the painting or who it portrays, but the museum is on the hunt for more information. After some restorations, it will go on view at the museum.

Christopher Baker, director of European and Scottish art at the National Galleries of Scotland, said in a statement, “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.”


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