The Life of Robert Strange

Today we look at the life of Robert Strange, an engraver from Scotland who joined the Jacobites but later reconciled with the government and was even knighted by King George III.

Born in Orkney in 1721, Robert Strange was 12 years old when his father died. To ease the pressure on the family finances Robert was sent to Edinburgh to be under the care of a half-brother who worked as a writer. Before long he was copying documents for his brother but in his spare time he enjoyed doing drawings. One day in 1735 his brother, while looking for some document, came across some of these drawings and immediately recognized that they showed talent. Unbeknown to Robert his brother took the drawings to Mr Richard Cooper, an established line-engraver practicing in Edinburgh. Mr Cooper also saw the potential talent and took Robert into his house on a six-year apprenticeship. Strange loved the work and at the end of his apprenticeship in 1741, he set-up on his own in Edinburgh at just 20 years old.

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Portrait of Robert Strange

Strange already had Jacobite sympathies but in 1743/44 his life changed when he met the girl who was later to become his wife, Isabella Lumisden. Isabella and her brother Andrew were passionate, dedicated Jacobites and in 1745, when the rebel army was in Edinburgh, Andrew Lumisden became Prince Charles’s private secretary. Robert Strange wanted to marry Isabella but before she agreed she insisted that Robert should join the Prince’s army and support the cause. Robert conceded and joined the Life Guards. He was with the army throughout the rebellion, fighting at both the battle of Prestonpans and the battle of Falkirk.

Two weeks before the Battle of Culloden  Prince Charles commissioned Robert to engrave some plates to print bank notes to pay the troops. Charles was running low on money, especially after the capture of the Jacobite ship ‘Le Prince Charles’, and was facing the prospect of being unable to feed or supply his army. Robert engraved the plates, which included illustrations of a rose and thistle, but the fateful battle intervened and the notes were never used.

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Robert Strange’s Jacobite banknotes

After Culloden Robert, like many Jacobites, was forced into hiding in the Highlands. Later in 1746, when the Act of Attainder for High Treason was passed, Robert had a stroke of luck as his name was not mentioned. Unfortunately, his future brother-in-law, Andrew Lumisden, was on the list and he was forced to flee into exile in France. It might have been a different story if the bank notes Robert had printed had been used but for now he had a chance to reinvent himself.

In early 1747 Robert came out of hiding and ventured back to Edinburgh. He secretly married Isabella but was still under suspicion and had to be careful. He could not return to work as a line-engraver, yet he had to earn some money. He painted and sold miniature paintings of the Jacobite leaders of the ’45 to those supporters who were still around. He remained in Edinburgh until September 1748 when, feeling the need to improve and develop his art, and perhaps seek new opportunities, he went to France. He spent several months in Rouen studying drawing and then went to Paris to study fine line-engraving under the French master, Le Bas.

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An engraving of Prince Charles by Robert Strange

Eventually he returned to Britain in 1765 with an international reputation as an engraver established. It took Robert a while to be accepted into the London art circle but thanks to his friend Benjamin West he went on to engrave a Van Dyck portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, which belonged to George III. Here he had unlimited access to the Royal Collection and caught the eye of King in a favourable way.  The print was published in Paris where it proved very popular and he was even received by Louis XVIII and Marie Antoinette. In 1786 he engraved Wests’ Apotheosis of the Children of George III and must have done a good job as on 5th January 1787 was knighted by King George III, the only engraver to be knighted in the 18th Century.

Robert Strange lived the rest of his life in England, having moved from Jacobite to knight, before he died in his home in 1792. Hopefully you have enjoyed this little insight into his life and as always please like, share, tweet, comment and keep on reading.

All the best, K & D

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