Born in Inveresk, East Lothian, the granddaughter of the portrait painter William Aikman (1682-1731), Forbes demonstrated remarkable talent and determination to further her artistic education in Italy at a time when female artists were excluded from the training given to male students.
Tutored in Rome by the ex-pat Scottish artists Gavin Hamilton and James Nevay, she returned home in 1771 as a competent oil painter and opened a short-lived portrait studio in the cut-and-thrust of Georgian London. Poor health forced her back to Edinburgh, but she recovered and made a living in the city as a drawing teacher and a portraitist.
Forbes’ likeness is best known through a 1781 painting by her friend David Allen (1744-96) that hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. There she is shown in an embroidered white shawl working at the easel, her gaze turned away from the viewer in steely determination.
The 21 x 18in (52 x 41cm) self-portrait offered by Cheffins in Cambridge as part of a two-day sale on September 20-21 showed Forbes in a similar guise. Worked in the artist’s favourite medium of pastels on paper, she is again shown holding a portfolio and the porte-crayon favoured by many Georgian artists.
Former owners of this picture included the eminent British rower and Olympian Frederick Pitman (1892-1963) and the British journalist and Reuters manager Sir Christopher Chancellor (1904-89).
However, at a moment when female artists of all eras are being reassessed, it s commercial value has probably never been higher. Estimated at £800-1200, it was knocked down at £9000 (£10,580 including 24.5% buyer’s premium) to a private Norfolk-based buyer bidding via thesaleroom.com.
The following lot, another Forbes portrait from the same source, also drew strong competition and sold to a different buyer. A 21 x 16½in (53.5 x 42cm) pastel on paper, it was believed to depict Elizabeth, Duchess of Hamilton (1733-1790), a celebrated society beauty originally from Ireland.
The artist painted a striking oil on canvas of her daughter, Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Derby (1753-97) in 1771. Painted in Rome, it shows the sitter wearing exotic dress and it sold for a cool £40,000 at Christie’s in 2019 - an auction record for Forbes. It is thought that she then portrayed her mother in pastel shortly afterwards.
The latter, most probably the current picture, was a more conventional portrait showing the sitter bust length in a blue dress with a black lace shawl. Pitched at £800-1200 in Cambridge, it sold at £6500 to the London trade.
For more on female artists, see our special report.