David Allan, “Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn” (c. 1780–1790) (all images courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

Last week, the National Galleries of Scotland announced their acquisition of one of the earliest known images of a Black woman by a Scottish artist. “Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn” by artist David Allan is a rare, 18th-century watercolor that takes a Black woman as a primary subject at a time when they were typically relegated to the margins of portraiture. 

Born in Central Scotland in 1744, Allan studied at Foulis’ Academy of Fine Arts in Glasgow. Later spending a decade in Italy painting portraits and historical paintings, Allan grew interested in drawing expressive sketches of street life. Arguably the first Scottish artist to eschew the painterly tradition of depicting historical scenes and the aristocracy in favor of people across the social hierarchy, Allan drew inspiration from all walks of contemporary life.

“Edinburgh Milkmaid” is a small-scale depiction of what appears to be a working-class woman, as suggested by her modest dress against the backdrop of an upper-crust Edinburgh street. Captured in the midst of the day, the woman, standing next to her milk churn, peers softly at the viewer. Allan paints the unnamed woman delicately, taking care to outline the patterns and shadows of her dress and the complexities of her unassuming expression. 

David Allan, “An Edinburgh Fishwife” (c. 1785) from his Edinburgh Characters series

Although much is unknown about the painting and its subject, this image may be inspired by a group of works known as Allan’s Edinburgh Characters, a series that depicts the lives of the city’s ordinary citizens. Allan began the series around 1788 and drew over 20 images of workers and traders amongst the tools of their trade. These works typically portrayed an individual or a pair of figures drawn in thick outlines of ink to reproduce the image easily.

Unlike “Edinburgh Milkmaid,” dated in the mid-1780s to early ’90s, Allan’s character studies were evocative drawings that simply captured types, often eluding the detailed expressions and personalities of the sitters. The Edinburgh Characters only gestured toward the essence of people like coalmen, soldiers, and fishwives, but never their specific identities, offering insight into the city’s 1780s milieu. Many images from the series are held in the National Galleries’ collection. 

“We are so pleased to bring this remarkable, rare and extraordinary watercolour into Scotland’s national collection,” said Christopher Baker, the National Galleries of Scotland’s director of European and Scottish art, in a statement. “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.”

Zoe Guy is a writer interested in film and contemporary art.