William Aikman (British, 1731)

In 1724, Aikman wrote that ‘His Grace of Argyll is as much my friend as ever and every day I have some mark of it or other so I’m happy enough here in good Patrons and cannot fail of success if the want of it proceeds not from my own weakness”. The Duke and Aikman had formed an important artistic relationship, with Aikman informally acting as his personal painter. He commissioned a great number of portraits for his several houses across Scotland and England, and prompted his political associates and Campbell kinsmen to commission portraits of the Duke from Aikman. Indeed, a similar portrait by Aikman of the Duke today hangs in the Palace of Westminster.

Aikman was the son of an Angus Laird, and although he initially planned on a career in business after studying law at Edinburgh University, the deaths of his eldest brother and his father meant that he inherited the family estate at Carnie, Arbroath as a young man. He was then at liberty to pursue art as his vocation, and emerged as the leading Scottish Painter of his generation. Aikman’s early portraits show the influence of St John Baptist of Medina (1695–1710), and he had some initial success in London before travelling to Italy in 1707 to study the Old Masters. He returned to Edinburgh in 1711, and after the death of Medina established himself as the foremost painter of Scotland’s elite. At this time he charged five guineas for a head portrait and ten for a half length.

It was with the Duke of Argyll’s backing that the artist was able to move to London in 1720 to establish himself with similar success to that which he had experienced in Edinburgh and was able to raise his head price to eight guineas. By 1725 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He went on to paint other leading members of parliament and the aristocracy, as well as an impressive portrait of the architect William Kent. Nevertheless he retained strong links with the Scottish community in London throughout his career and remained the Duke’s principal painter of choice. Towards the end of his life he painted what is arguably one of his greatest works, a portrait in Highland dress of the Duke of Argyll’s nephew, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute (1713–1792). By this time he was able to demand up to forty guineas for a full length portrait, an indication of both his skill and popularity.