William Aikman (Scottish, 1731)

William Aikman (Scottish, 1682–1731) was a Scottish-born portrait painter. The son of an Angus Laird, Aikman initially planned on a career in business after studying law at Edinburgh University. However, the deaths of his eldest brother and father meant that he inherited the family estate at Carnie, Arbroath, as a young man. He was then free to pursue art as his vocation, and emerged as the leading Scottish painter of his generation. Aikman’s early portraits show the influence of Sir John Baptist of Medina, and he had some initial success in London before traveling 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.

The Duke of Argyll 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.

It was with the duke’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. In 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. Toward the end of his life, he painted what is arguably one of his greatest works, a portrait in highland dress of the duke’s nephew, John Stuart.

Today, his works can be found in the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Huntington Library in California, among other notable institutions.