THE National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) have announced the acquisition of one of the earliest known images of a black person by a Scottish artist.

Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan (1744-1796) is a beautifully painted watercolour which is both exceptionally rare and striking. It is also a bit of history which contains a real mystery, as we do not know who the woman was.


THE painting depicts a black woman alone and centre stage at a time when black sitters more often appeared as marginal or subservient figures in group portraits.

She is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties, set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street.

Like the Mona Lisa, the milkmaid stares enigmatically at us, but we have much more of a clue about the identity of La Gioconda – Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Gioconda – than we do about the subject of Allan’s painting.

She looks more mixed-race than outrightly African, and it could well be that she was the child of a merchant or plantation owner – there are numerous examples of Scots fathering a child with a slave and then taking that child to Scotland.

The fact is that Allan left no clues about her other that to show her standing in front of her butter churn – but was that really her occupation?

NGS says: “The Edinburgh Milkmaid is highly detailed, precisely painted and clearly a portrait of a specific person.

“It is hoped that further research may reveal more about the connection between the artist and the young woman and shed some light on her identity.”


AGAIN we don’t outrightly know, but there is a clue in the timing of the painting. It is now being dated to 1785-95, and that was after the historic case of Joseph Knight, a slave who in 1778 won his freedom in Scotland’s highest civil court, the Court of Session, which effectively declared that slavery was illegal in Scotland.

Could the milkmaid have some connection to Knight? We know he married a domestic maid, Ann Thompson, who was in the service of his master John Wedderburn, a sugar plantation owner.

Like everyone in Enlightenment Edinburgh, David Allan would know the story of Knight, so is the milkmaid perhaps the daughter of Joseph Knight?


ONE of the largely unsung figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Allan hailed from Alloa and with the support of his patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart of Shaw Park, near Alloa, he travelled to Italy around 1767 and remained there for a decade, painting historical pictures and portraits. He became interested in drawing scenes of street life, inspired by the popular print tradition of depicting street criers who called out to advertise their produce or trades. He sketched street vendors, aristocrats on the Grand Tour, coffee house scenes, dances, carnivals and local costume in Rome and Naples and elsewhere.

The National: Undated handout photo issued by National Galleries of Scotland of Edinburgh Milkmaid With Butter Churn by David Allan, one of the earliest known images of a black person by a Scottish artist has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. Issue

These experiences led Allan to take a similar approach after his return to Scotland in 1779. He drew his subject matter from contemporary life, ranging from specific events such as The Ceremony of Laying the Foundation Stone of the New College of Edinburgh (1789) to timeless traditions and customs, such as A Highland Dance and The Penny Wedding. In 1786 Allan was appointed to a teaching post as Master of the Trustees’ Academy and he settled permanently in Edinburgh.

The city and its inhabitants became a particular focus for this work. From about 1788 he developed the series of more than 20 drawings of workers and traders often referred to as his “Edinburgh Characters”.

They typically show an individual or pair of figures with the tools of their trade, set against a simple architectural or rural background.

Allan’s subjects range from higher status figures, such as a Highland officer in uniform and officers of the Town Guard, to those who did the city’s heavy labour, such as the coalmen, chimney sweeps, porters and water carriers.

Female workers are represented by a fishwife, a salt vendor and a lacemaker.

The figures are drawn with strong outlines in ink to enable them to be traced easily, as Allan made multiple versions of his character drawings, several of which are held in the NGS collection.

He also reproduced his Edinburgh characters on a smaller scale as the cast that populate his landscape views of the Royal Mile, such as High Street from the Netherbow, made in 1793.

Seen as a group, Allan’s street characters give a broad and fascinating insight into late 1780s Edinburgh as a living, working city. The Milkmaid painting was clearly inspired by his Characters, but Allan depicts her as somebody quite different from the rest.


ACCORDING to NGS, Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn will go on display at the National Gallery at a later date following some conservation work which is currently being prepared.

NGS director of European and Scottish art, Christopher Baker, commented: “We are so pleased to bring this remarkable, rare and extraordinary watercolour into Scotland’s national collection. It is an incredibly striking and special work, one which we believe will be enjoyed by many and, we hope, lead to new research on its background and most importantly the story of the woman depicted.”

Perhaps NGS could organise a sleuthing contest to find the Milkmaid’s identity? Now that would be a marketing exercise worth covering in a future National.