The sitter's biographical details are uncertain. Called Lucy, she seems to have been christened Louisa, and was the daughter of Wynne Johnston of Hilltown. In 1793 she married Richard Alexander Oswald of Auchincruive, St. Quivox, Ayr. The couple had two children: Richard, who died without issue, and Mary, who in 1818 married Thomas Spencer Lindsay of Hollymount, County Mayo, Ireland. In May 1795, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) addressed a song to her that he titled “O, Wat Ye Wha’s in Yon Town", and in a letter called her “that incomparable woman" (see Burns 1844). Lucy composed an air to which Burns set his poem “Thou Lingering Star" (Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., New York, 1980, p. 276). Forced to seek a warmer climate because of ill health, she traveled to Lisbon, where in 1797 or 1798 she died of pulmonary consumption.
The present portrait must have belonged to the sitter’s husband, because it descended until 1921 in the Oswald family. It has been dated about 1795 and was engraved in stipple by H. T. Ryall (Burns 1844). The setting sun brilliantly illuminating the sky through a screen of tree trunks and foliage in the background was a device Raeburn favored in the mid-1790s. Typically for the artist, there are extensive drying cracks, principally in the dark passages in the background. Raeburn painted another half-length portrait of about the same date that has been identified as Mrs. Oswald, née Lucy Johnston, since 1876, when it was included in the Raeburn exhibition in Edinburgh as no. 28, lent by James T. Gibson-Craig; however, it seems to represent a different sitter.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]