Between 1750 and 1850 Scotland was transformed. Commercial, industrial and agricultural improvement changed the physical appearance and the social fabric of the country. A new meritocracy emerged, whose members demanded a leading role in civil society and politics, alongside the traditional landowning elite.
These new middle-classes wished to see their own values – industriousness, self-reliance and social responsibility – asserted in their portraits, offering a moral contrast to the showy and often overpowering images of earlier times. Civic virtue and moral fibre would be judged in the faces of those who were now able to commission a likeness.
At the same time, artists were themselves responding to the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment and developing innovative styles. Portraiture was crucial in this. It was in the laboratory of the portrait studio, and pre-eminently that of Sir Henry Raeburn, that the worth of these enterprising Scots was made visible.