IT was in this week of 1796 that one of the most remarkable Scottish women of the 19th century was born – but I suspect that most modern Scots have never heard of Christina Saunders Robertson. That’s because like so many Scottish people of note, she is much more revered abroad than here in Scotland.

The reason for that is simple – Christina was famous in Russia where she achieved high distinction as a portrait painter in that country’s imperial court. She was pretty famous in the UK too but her peak years in Russia coincided with a deterioration in relationships between Britain and Russia, and she was in some ways written out of history. That is so unfair because prior to the Crimean War, Christina was one of the most celebrated figures at the Russian court having already made her considerable name in Britain for the excellence of her miniature portraits in particular.

She was born on December 10, 1796, at Kinghorn in Fife. Sadly we know little about her early life but we do know that her family were artistic and that her parents insisted on Christina having a full education – a very rare thing in those days.

It was clear from a young age that Christina was very talented as an artist, and her painter uncle George Saunders (or Sanders), who was also born in Kinghorn, took her on as a sort of apprentice in his London studio.

George Sanders was a portraitist and miniaturist and though he was limited talent-wise, he was a very adequate painter of people as they wished to be portrayed – Lord Byron was a regular customer. Thus he soon acquired a clientele of the rich and famous and he passed many of his subjects on to Christina.

I am not qualified to judge on the artistic merits of Christina’s work compared to her uncle’s but the facts speak for themselves – she was soon painting more portraits than George, and making more money from them. And when you consider that George once earned the fabulous sum back then of £800 for a portrait of Lord Londonderry, you can see why she was a success and rated as such in her twenties.

In 1822, she married another artist, James Robertson, whose career was completely eclipsed by hers. They would go on to have eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood.

It is thought that her husband encouraged her to show her work on a grander stage – in 1823 she exhibited at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in London and at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh.

These showings proved to be a breakthrough for her, and by the late 1820s, Christina was recognised as one of Scotland’s finest portrait painters. Having first made her name painting Scottish nobles, her work spread to include a roll call of celebrated people across Britain, especially the aristocracy. In 1828, she took the unprecedented step for a woman in that era of establishing her own studio in London.

The following year, she gained the singular honour and distinction of being elected the first female honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, something that had hitherto been thought impossible.

Christina’s career was really only just beginning, however. Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Russia’s leaders including their royal family, were embracing the cultures of elsewhere in Europe and many became openly Anglophile.

Christina’s works began to appear in leading magazines in the form of engravings many of which are preserved in London’s leading art galleries and she began to learn of the interest in her work of the Russian royal family.

In 1837, she travelled to Paris and there she was commissioned to paint the portraits of numerous leading Russian figures some of which featured in an major exhibition of her work in St Petersburg, the then Russian capital. So admired was she for these popular artworks that she was invited to go to St Petersburg and become a portraitist for the royal court.

In 1840, she was commissioned to paint two full-length portraits of the reigning Tsar and Tsatrina, Nicholas I and Alexandra Feodorovna, formerly princess Charlotte of Prussia.

Painting the emperor of all Russians boosted Christina’s career into the stratosphere and Russian aristocrats joined the queue to be painted by her. The tragedy for us in this modern era is that comparatively few of her portraits survived as they were destroyed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Enough escaped destruction for us to note their historical importance as records of the major names of imperial Russia.

Christina came back to Britain in 1841, the same year that she was elected an honorary “free associate” of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. I have searched the records and am unable to find any other woman artist who has enjoyed such distinctions.

Christina Robertson decided to relocate permanently to St Petersburg in 1841 and she continued to enjoy the patronage of the royal family and the imperial court for another decade.

The only blot on her copybook was in 1849 when the Emperor rejected portraits of his daughters-in-law though – whether that was because they were too complimentary or nor complimentary enough is not recorded. In any case, Christina bounced back triumphantly by being chosen by one of those daughters-in-law, Grand Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna, to paint portraits of herself and her children, while in 1852, the Empress herself sat for an updated portrait.

However, trouble was brewing at home and abroad as the Russian and British governments were on opposite sides of the argument over the divisions in Europe caused by the decline of the Ottoman Empire. What became known as the Crimean War broke in 1853, and no doubt horrified by this outcome, Robertson’s health declined rapidly and she died at her home in St Petersburg on April 30, 1854. She is buried in the city’s Volkov Cemetery.