Martin, David (1737-1797)

Martin, David (1737-1797)
Martin, David (1737-1797)

Scottish artist David Martin thrived as a portrait painter during the 18th century, a time when portraiture itself was a prosperous and burgeoning trade. From training and working under one of the most prominent portraitists of the time, to establishing his own studios in Edinburgh and London, Martin contributed to the growth of Scottish art.

The son of a schoolmaster in the Scottish coastal town of Anstruther, it is unclear how Martin first began his painterly pursuits. However, as a young adult, he became a pupil of one of Scotland’s leading portrait painters, Allan Ramsay (1713-1784).

Martin would accompany Ramsay on a trip to Italy in the 1750s, where he would develop the teachings that he had already begun under his master. Artistic training in Italy was a common practice for Scottish artists to undertake during the 18th century. With no formal art school within Scotland, a sojourn to the continent was a necessary step to develop an artist’s talents.

Another common choice artists would make was to move south from Scotland to reside in London. Here, a more readily thriving artistic environment ensured both better educational and employment prospects. After returning from Italy, Martin would do just that, studying for a time at the St Martin’s Lane Academy, which had been established by William Hogarth (1697-1764).

After his education was complete, Martin would move to work in Ramsay’s studio. It was common for portraitists to have a whole brigade of artists working under them who would aid them in the completion of commissions. Martin was employed as a draughtsman and lent his hand to the completion of a number of portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

By 1770, Martin had grown beyond being his master’s assistant and had established his own studio in London. His reputation grew as he participated more and more in artistic exhibitions. He exhibited with the Society of Artists of Great Britain, the Free Society of Artists, and, after its establishment in 1768, the Royal Academy. Indeed, for a few years, he worked as treasurer for the Society of Artists of Great Britain.

From 1775, he worked predominantly in Edinburgh, moving back over the border following his wife’s death. He would return to London, but the Scottish capital henceforth became his base, and he contributed to its growth as an artistic centre. He was the leading portrait artist working in the city at the time, appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales. Other budding Scottish portraitists came to him for advice and guidance, including Henry Raeburn (1756-1823).

Martin’s list of clients ranged from royalty to nobility, to some of the greatest thinkers of his time. In particular, Martin was noted for his depictions of the varying figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, including philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).

As was desired from portraitists at the time, Martin presented both a crisp likeness of his sitters and an astute representation of their position within society. Certain poses and pieces of clothing could indicate much to the viewer about a person’s status, and it was just as necessary that an artist capture these as the sitter’s physical features.

His full-body portrait of the Earl of Mansfield embeds the earl in sumptuous surroundings. The classical features say much about his refinement, the book laid out in front of him his education. His clothing, too, is rich and luxurious, crushed ruby velvet gilded with golden thread.

Art critics have noted that many of the enlivened likenesses in Martin’s work resemble both Allan Murray’s work and that of another prominent portraitist, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). His works are certainly in the spirit of the age, and later examples also suggest some experimentation with the developing changes taking place in portraiture. An echo of Henry Raeburn’s more emphatic and dynamic approach to his sitters’ character can be seen in Martin’s later work.

Not only did Martin work furiously as a painter, producing over 300 portraits, but he also took the time to reproduce his works as prints. In doing so, Martin could be assured his works would reach a larger audience, as prints could be disseminated widely. This could win him both national attention and prospective patrons. Martin shows himself to be a formidable talent in his prints, translating the likenesses of his sitters from the language of paint to the language of ink and paper.

Martin would remain in Edinburgh until his last days, dying in the city in 1797. He had contributed to the growth of Scottish art and portrait painting, laying the foundations for the generations to follow. Today, his work can be found in institutions and museums across Britain, including the National Scottish Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London.


Born in Anstruther, Fife, Scotland.


Travelled to Italy with Allan Ramsay.


Exhibited frequently with the Society of Artists of Great Britain.


Exhibited with the Free Society of Artists.


Married Ann Hill.


Acted as treasurer to the Society of Artists of Great Britain.


Wife Ann Hill died.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Moved to Edinburgh, Scotland.


Appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Died in Edinburgh, Scotland. Buried in South Leith Parish Church graveyard.

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