About this artwork

Colin Maclaurin was a Scottish mathematician who published and extended Newton's work in calculus, geometry, and gravitation. Born in the parish of Kilmodan in Argyll, Maclaurin lost both parents in childhood. He graduated from the University of Glasgow, aged only fourteen, with a thesis on the power of gravity. In 1717 he became professor of mathematics at Marischal College in Aberdeen. His work came to the attention of Sir Isaac Newton, who became something of a patron. In 1725 Maclaurin was appointed deputy professor at the University of Edinburgh. When the University struggled to fund the post, Newton contributed to Maclaurin’s salary. In Edinburgh, Maclaurin met and tutored the young astronomer James Ferguson, whose portrait of Maclaurin formed the basis for this drawing by the Earl of Buchan.

James Ferguson

David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan

James Ferguson

James Ferguson was a natural philosopher, an inventor of astronomical instruments and a painter of miniatures. Born in Banffshire to a poor family, Ferguson soon developed a keen interest in mechanics and astronomy. While in the service of Sir James Dunbar of Durn he educated himself in a variety of subjects, including how to draw miniatures in Indian ink. After studying in Edinburgh, in 1743 he moved to London, where he lectured on natural philosophy, designed scientific instruments and wrote books on mechanics, astronomy and perspective drawing. Meanwhile he continued to supplement his income by drawing portrait miniatures in ink and wash. Ferguson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1763, though curiously he was exempted from paying the annual fee.

David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan

David Erskine, later 11th Earl of Buchan, was an antiquary and unsuccessful political reformer. Schooled by his parents, both of whom had studied mathematics under Colin Maclaurin, he later attended classes at St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow. After his succession to the earldom in 1767 he returned from his military commission to improve the finances of the family estate. A keen patron of scholarship and the arts, Buchan founded the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780. As its somewhat overbearing leader he contributed both money and objects to the Society’s collections. Buchan’s odd social behaviour and unconventional political views earned him the reputation of an eccentric, but his collection of portraits became the founding collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.