Picture of the month

Sir Henry Raeburn, 'The Archers', about 1789–90 

Sir Henry Raeburn’s striking double portrait shows two stylish young men enjoying a fashionable 18th-century pursuit

Sir Henry Raeburn, ‘The Archers’, about 1789-90

The Archers are two teenage brothers: Robert Ferguson of Raith (1770–1840) and Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Ferguson (1773–1841). From a wealthy Scottish family, as would suit their position in society, they both became members of the Royal Company of Archers and, as adults, served as MPs.

Raeburn painted the portrait early in his career when he was experimenting with different compositions and lighting effects. He cleverly uses the shape created by the bow and arrow to frame the younger brother, Ronald, and dramatic lighting to highlight the elder brother and heir to the family fortune, Robert.

Robert is at the front of the painting wearing a fashionably dishevelled yellowish-grey coat with powdered hair. Light floods in from the left, hitting his arm, neckerchief, face and hair, and the brim of his hat, making him stand out against the background of dark trees and clouds. His body is facing us but his head and arms are turned away; his focus is the destination of the arrow he is about to release.

Ronald, who is literally in his older brother’s shadow, is dressed more plainly in a dull brown coat with his hair hanging loose under his hat. His bow is lowered, its string dangling in a loose curve. He looks straight at us and holds our gaze. Despite being the younger brother, we get the impression that he is a confident character.

Our only painting by Raeburn, the leading Edinburgh-based portraitist of his generation, this charming double portrait with its dark tones and still atmosphere has an air of romanticism about it in keeping with the age.

Sir Henry Raeburn
about 1789-90
Sir Henry Raeburn: ''The Archers''