Ice-Skating, Real and Imagined

I can't honestly say ice-skating is one of my fortes. It must be a few decades since I last fancied myself like the young Wordsworth "all shod with steel" as I "hissed along the polished ice in games confederate, imitative of the chase."

Well, "hissing" was more an objective than an accomplishment. But you can't have everything if you're a novice and your skates belonged to a previous generation of the family with feet two sizes larger. Glissando wasn't exactly the word. My attempts had more the character of a hoe sticking in the dirt, or of the extreme opposite: an unexpected acceleration by the terminal part of one's legs for which the rest of you compensates by an unlikely reflex attempt to reverse. The effect is upsetting. I quickly realized the need to discourage any latent ambition to make ice-skating my profession.

But this did not stop the night dream. It is one of my all-time favorites. I still have it sometimes. In it, my skating has progressed way beyond mere hissing. I am magnificent. I am on a long canal (the one, I suspect, on which we actually fooled around on those rare occasions when English ice was thick enough) and, bent aerodynamically low, I am sweeping through the breath-clouded air with my arms wide-flailing, my chin resolute, every careening, unresisted thrust of my keen skates a dynamic propulsion. Battered reed beds and old alder trees flash past. No wobble, no hesitation. Just trajectory. I have single-handedly elevated speed-skating to a high art.

My preposterous dream does not, however, include looking like one of the most enchanting skaters in the history of high art, the Rev. Robert Walker.

This gentleman was painted by the late-18th, early-19th-century Scottish portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn. He is delightfully of his period, his exhilaration restrain-ed by good breeding. I must say, though, that there are certain aspects of his demeanor as he skates for his portrait ("sitting" not being the preferred option on ice) that I cannot help admiring, above all, his nonchalantly folded arms. They indicate a blithe confidence that reminds me of some of the showoffs at public rinks.

My skating in such places displayed even less prowess than on the canal, partly because of the competition. It comes at you from all sides, circling and slicing, barging and bumping. And in among this mayhem there is always a sampling of real skaters who make a virtue of necessity by using the rest of us as weaving posts. Their unspoken message is clear: "Out of my way, amateur!" The fact that they are usually six years old doesn't help.

There is another famous portrait of an 18th-century gentleman skater, also with folded arms. This is Gilbert Stuart's "The Skater (Portrait of William Grant)." Although Stuart was an American, he was living in London and his skater was, like Raeburn's, a Scot. Both painters knew how skating should be done.

Ellen Miles, in her book "American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century," mentions a 1772 treatise on skating in which there was an illustration of a skater with arms crossed and a comment that this was "a proper attitude for genteel rolling."

Stuart's skater, elegantly offhand in his lack of haste, seems to be posing rather than progressing. Raeburn's, however, leaves one in little doubt that the painter was fortunate to capture him before he slid determinedly out of the picture frame - if one can apply to an 18th-century oil-painting the hindsight provided by photography, a technique at that time not invented.

Also appealing is the fact that Raeburn's skater is alone. Gilbert's protagonist has a backing group. I get the feeling that Raeburn was himself a skater, or had a skating dream, and invested a mere portrait with subjective poetry. I can't help being puzzled by the parallel lines Gilbert painted on the ice to describe his skater's passage. Only one skate is observably tracing a line, and tram lines are not generally the marks that skaters make.

RAEBURN, by comparison, has described a delightful melee of streaks in the frozen surface, and he has actually gotten a little carried away with the fascination of this. As a young man, this painter had been apprenticed to an Edinburgh jeweler. Presumably, he had learned how to engrave on metal. And although as a painter he is generally broad and free - truly a painter rather than a precise draftsman - he sometimes concentrates on exacting little details as if intricacy were still one side of his vision.

The skating grooves are, as Duncan Thomson has recently written, "incised with some appropriate tool" making "tiny furrows." This is like an engraver using a sharp steel tool to cut a line in a metal plate to make a print. Raeburn even "tipped" into the grooves, writes Thomson, "a purer white to simulate the froth of ice thrown aside by the cutting blade." This is like ink on an engraved plate being left in the grooves for printing.

The inventiveness of Raeburn here is extraordinary. His purpose was descriptive. But the grooves in the surface of his paint/ice have become, like the random moves of the skater, an end in themselves. They're a dance of lines for their own sake, an abstract more than a century early, automatic writing an age before surrealism, Jackson Pollock pre-empted in the 18th century.

The picturing of an elegant Georgian winter pastime - or an idyllic dream of it - has foretold modern art.

About The Art

A Scottish Painter's Fluid Moves

Henry Raeburn's reputation has had its rises and falls. One reason for the falls has been a not-entirely-unjustified perception that this Scottish portrait painter (1756-1823) could be careless. He had a notable facility with the brush and he also overproduced. But a current exhibition, at the National Portrait Gallery in London (through Feb. 1, 1998), shows him at his finest. It displays more than 60 masterworks. Raeburn's originality and freshness - sometimes as if his paint has hardly dried - almost literally shine out. His sitters are idealized in tune with period expectations, but they are full of immediate life - few more so than "The Rev'd Robert Walker (1755-1808): 'The Skating Minister.' "

In his catalog note on this fascinating painting, Duncan Thomson, recently retired keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, evinces no doubt that it is by Raeburn, though in character it is quite unlike any other surviving painting by him. Thomson finds traits in common with other Raeburn works: his obsession with "the whole notion of profile," for example, and the contrasting freedom of the wintry landscape with the "refinement of detail within the figure and the lower third of the painting." Thomson describes with relish the skate marks in the ice, calling them "a tour de force" of observation.

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