Anne Forbes was born to Hugh Forbes in Inverask in 1745. Hugh was the son of Lieut.-Colonel John Forbes and Elizabeth Graham, daughter of an Edinburgh merchant. In 1701, Colonel Forbes purchased Pittencrieff Park, near Dunfermline, and it was here that Hugh grew up. His brother John Forbes (1707 – 1759) was a served in the British Army during 1763 French and Indian War and took the French outpost of Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hugh Forbes was a Principal Clerk of Session in Edinburgh. He married Margaret Aikman (1716-1800), daughter of Scottish portraitist William Aikman (1682-1731.) He was first cousin of Duncan Forbes, 5th Lord Culloden and Lord President of the Court of Sessions.
When Anne was 15, her father Hugh died in 1760 and left her widowed mother and two elder sisters in “genteel poverty.” In 1767, family friend Robert Chalmers saw some of her pastel (crayon) drawings and felt she had enough talent to study in Italy. He arranged for the Aikman family and one other family friend to support her at the level of £200 pounds per year for three years. By that time, her brother John Forbes would resign his lieutenant’s commission and help support the family.
She settled in Rome with her mother as chaperone in 1768 and studied under Scottish artists Gavin Hamilton and James Nevay. She started in drawing in chalk and went on to use oils. Her usual practice was to borrow well-known works and copy them in oils. However, due to an unusual heat wave, she suffered with violent headaches.
James Nevay visited Forbes once or twice a day, to give her instruction in oil painting. However, her patrons started hearing rumors about Forbes marrying a “struggling artist” in Rome. Her brother John sold his officer’s commission and came to Rome with one of his sisters to escort Anne and her mother back to Edinburgh in March 1771.
Forbes settled in London and wrote a series of letters in 1772 to Robert Chalmers concerning her progress and the commissions she received. Later letters reveal that the commissions were paid by Chalmers and the portraits were given as gifts to the subjects – a form of “promotional gifts.”
While securing many commissions, Forbes lost weight and appetite from attempting to complete them all. While she excelled at portraits, she was less skilled in backgrounds such as draperies. Disheartened, she wrote: “I would with pleasure relinquish the idea of making a fortune, which I am now fearfully convinced I never can, could I make a comfortable living at home which I flatter myself I might be able for…”
Forbes became seriously ill in October 1772 and, when she recovered, returned to Edinburgh. She fulfilled her wish to “make a comfortable living” from painting and teaching. In 1788 she was appointed Portrait Painter to the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh. She never married and died in 1834.
Three of her portraits are on display at Dumfries House: Countess Margaret, Wife of the 6th Earl of Dumfries (1726–1803); Patrick McDouall-Crichton (1726–1803), 6th Earl of Dumfries; and Lady Elizabeth Penelope Crichton (1772–1797). Her other portraits (and public locations) are Baron Robert Orde (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh); Lady Anne Stewart (National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery); Queen Anne (University of Aberdeen); and Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (University of Aberdeen.)
Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, by Neil Jeffares, 2006
Dictionary of Women Artists, Volume I, edited by Delia Gaze, 1997
Left, top: Portrait of Anne Forbes by David Allan, 1781, National Galleries Scotland
Left, bottom: Portrait of Lady Anne Stewart, by Anne Forbes, 1774, National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery