Mystery of the Edinburgh Milkmaid in 18th-century Scottish painting

The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) have announced the acquisition of one of the earliest known images of a black person by a Scottish artist.

The Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan (1744-1796) is a beautifully painted watercolor that is both exceptionally rare and striking. It is also a bit of history which conceals a real mystery, because we do not know who this woman was.


The painting depicts a black woman alone and center stage at a time when black models more often appeared as marginal or enslaved figures in group portraits.

She is pictured in business attire, going about her daily chores, against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street.

Like the Mona Lisa, the milkmaid looks at us with an enigmatic air, but we have much more clues to the identity of La Gioconda – Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Gioconda – than to the subject of Allan’s painting.

She looks more mixed race than purely African, and it could well be that she was the child of a merchant or plantation owner – there are many examples of Scots fathering a child with a slave, then taking this child to Scotland.

The point is, Allan left no clue about her other than to show her standing in front of his butter churn – but was that really his occupation?

NGS says: “The Milkmaid of Edinburgh is very detailed, accurately painted and clearly represents a portrait of a specific person.

“We hope that further research can reveal more about the link between the artist and the young woman and shed light on her identity.”


AGAIN, we don’t quite know this, but there is a clue in the timing of the painting. It is now dated 1785-1795, and this was after the historic case of Joseph Knight, a slave who in 1778 was granted his freedom in Scotland’s highest civil court, the Court of Session, who effectively stated that slavery was illegal in Scotland.

Could the milkmaid have a connection to Knight? We know that he married a servant, Ann Thompson, who was in the service of his master John Wedderburn, owner of a sugar cane plantation.

Like everyone at Enlightenment Edinburgh, David Allan would know Knight’s story, so could the milkmaid be Joseph Knight’s daughter?


One of the largely unrecognized figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Allan was from Alloa and with the support of his patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart of Shaw Park, near Alloa, he traveled to Italy around 1767 and remained there for a decade, painting historical pictures and portraits. He became interested in drawing scenes from life on the streets, inspired by the popular printing tradition of depicting street criers calling to advertise their products or trades. He sketched street vendors, Grand Tour aristocrats, cafe scenes, dances, carnivals, and local costumes in Rome, Naples and elsewhere.

These experiences led Allan to take a similar approach after returning to Scotland in 1779. He drew his subject matter from contemporary life, ranging from specific events such as the New College of Edinburgh’s cornerstone laying ceremony (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 Academy of Trustees and he settled permanently in Edinburgh.

The city and its inhabitants have become a particular focus for this work. From around 1788 he developed the series of more than 20 drawings of workers and traders often referred to as his “Edinburgh characters”.

They usually show an individual or a pair of figures with the tools of their trade, in a simple architectural or rural context.

Allan’s subjects range from figures of higher status, such as a uniformed Highland officer and town guard officers, to those who did the heavy city work, such as charcoal burners, chimney sweeps, carriers and carriers of water.

The workers are represented by a fishmonger, a salt seller and a lacemaker.

The figures are drawn with strong outlines in ink for easy tracing, as Allan made several versions of his character designs, several of which are held in the NGS collection.

He also reproduced his characters of Edinburgh on a smaller scale as a cast that populates his landscape views of the Royal Mile, such as High Street from the Netherbow, made in 1793.

Viewed as a group, Allan’s Street Figures provide a broad and fascinating glimpse into the late 1780s in Edinburgh as a vibrant and active city. The Milkmaid’s painting was clearly inspired by her characters, but Allan portrayed her as someone very different from others.


ACCORDING TO NGS, Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn will be on display at the National Gallery at a later date following some curatorial work in preparation.

NGS European and Scottish Art Director Christopher Baker commented: “We are delighted to include this remarkable, rare and extraordinary watercolor in the Scottish National Collection. It is an incredibly striking and special work, which we believe will be popular with many and hopefully lead to further research into its background and, most importantly, the history of the depicted woman.

Maybe NGS could organize a detective contest to find the Milkmaid’s identity? It would be a marketing exercise that deserves to be covered in a future National.

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