Henry Raeburn was the leading portraitist in Edinburgh, Scotland, a center of the intellectual and artistic movement known as the Enlightenment, from about 1790 until his death in 1823. The Allen Brothers dates from early in his career, when his portraits show a remarkably experimental approach to composition, poses, and lighting effects, as well as the free, virtuoso brushwork for which he is best known.
Like many of Raeburn’s patrons, the Allen brothers came from the Scottish landowning elite. John Lee Allen (born in 1781) and James Allen (born in 1783), the sons of John Allen of Inchmartine, were heirs to the considerable estates of Inchmartine and Errol on the north bank of the Tay estuary, near Perth. Despite their social status, the boys appear in an informal scenario, playing a game with a hat and a stick. The exact nature of the game is unclear, although it is presumably some form of mock fighting, perhaps a boyish version of jousting. Whatever the case, the activity allows Raeburn to set off one against the other in a series of contrasts: the older boy standing and active, the younger seated (after a fashion) and passive; the older boy in profile and intent on his play, the younger in full face and apparently responding to the presence of the viewer.
In his characterization of the boys, Raeburn hints at aspects of boyhood in general. The younger boy’s expression and pose suggest a carefree innocence. Meanwhile his older brother jabs the stick into the lining of the hat, which is already ripped, with a look of determination, even destructive willfulness, that suggests innocence lost. Such a subtle and ambiguous vision was characteristic of the Romantic period, which gave birth to the idea of childhood as an interesting state in itself rather than a mere prelude to adulthood.