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

WHAT’S THE STORY?

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.

Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan (1744-1796) is a beautifully painted watercolour which is both exceptionally rare and striking. It is also a bit of history which contains a real mystery, as we do not know who the woman was.

ANY IDEAS WHO SHE MIGHT BE?

THE painting depicts a black woman alone and centre stage at a time when black sitters more often appeared as marginal or subservient figures in group portraits.

She is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties, set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street.

Like the Mona Lisa, the milkmaid stares enigmatically at us, but we have much more of a clue about the identity of La Gioconda – Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Gioconda – than we do about the subject of Allan’s painting.

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

The fact is that Allan left no clues about her other that to show her standing in front of her butter churn – but was that really her occupation?

NGS says: “The Edinburgh Milkmaid is highly detailed, precisely painted and clearly a portrait of a specific person.

“It is hoped that further research may reveal more about the connection between the artist and the young woman and shed some light on her identity.”

WAS SHE A SLAVE OR A FREE WOMAN?

AGAIN we don’t outrightly know, but there is a clue in the timing of the painting. It is now being dated to 1785-95, and that was after the historic case of Joseph Knight, a slave who in 1778 won his freedom in Scotland’s highest civil court, the Court of Session, which effectively declared that slavery was illegal in Scotland.

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

Like everyone in Enlightenment Edinburgh, David Allan would know the story of Knight, so is the milkmaid perhaps the daughter of Joseph Knight?

WHO WAS DAVID ALLAN?

ONE of the largely unsung figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Allan hailed from Alloa and with the support of his patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart of Shaw Park, near Alloa, he travelled to Italy around 1767 and remained there for a decade, painting historical pictures and portraits. He became interested in drawing scenes of street life, inspired by the popular print tradition of depicting street criers who called out to advertise their produce or trades. He sketched street vendors, aristocrats on the Grand Tour, coffee house scenes, dances, carnivals and local costume in Rome and Naples and elsewhere.

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