Archibald Skirving (1749-1819)
This miniature is a rare, signed, example of the work of the Scottish portraitist Archibald Skirving...
This miniature is a rare, signed example of the work of the Scottish portraitist Archibald Skirving. The son of a farmer, Skirving was probably taught (in his early 20s) at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh. During this time, he supported himself working as a customs officer, painting miniatures at night in his only spare time.
In 1777 he moved to London, determined to succeed as a professional artist in both miniature painting and pastel. In 1784, he decided to return home, to Edinburgh and two years later, he went to Rome. Supported by Lord Elcho he stayed for eight years and made many important acquaintances, among them Gavin Hamilton. Although by this stage he was noted as a talented artist, his painstaking technique was too time consuming for him to be able to make sufficient money from his portraits.
Skirving attempted to return to Scotland in 1794. Even though he had left Rome before the French invasion, Skirving’s boat was captured by the French off the Straits of Gibraltar and, suspected of being a spy, he was jailed nine months in Brest. During this time his eyesight suffered and prevented him from painting many miniatures on his return. In 1802 he had written to his brother, "At Brest after getting out of prison my companion who would buy some pins at the gate remarked that they were all split; he never dreamed the defect was in his sight, and I cannot make a pen tolerable. Glasses would remedy this but they do not well to paint, for painting requires to see different distances." 
In 1999, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery mounted a monographic exhibition devoted to Skirving, which went some way to restore his reputation from the obscurity into which he had fallen. Many portraits are attributed to Skirving but very few are signed. In 2004, a portrait miniature of an unknown man by Skirving made a new record for the artist in the Albion Collection of Portrait Miniatures (lot 141) at £7,170.
Stephen Lloyd, Raeburn’s Rival. Archibald Skirving 1749–1819, Edinburgh, The Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 1999, p. 22