Born in East Lothian, Skirving studied and Edinburgh and also in London and Rome, travelling extensively in Italy and France before returning to Scotland in 1795. He began his career as a miniaturist and is thought to be among the finest panellists of the eighteenth century, but is little known compared to many of his contemporaries, most notably Raeburn, with whom he shared a sponanteity and respect for the subject which can be seen in his portraits. Skirving worked in crayon or chalk, an Italian style that, though less fashionable than oils, became popular late in that century.
He is most known for his sketch of Robert Burns, taken from Namsyth’s famous portrait and also from Skirving’s recollection of a meeting with the poet in 1786. Whereas Raeburn was sociable and prolific, developing a wide clientele with his popular oil portraits, Skirving was proud and eccentric, and so lacked the temperament for success in a necessarily sociable business. He was legendary for his frugality and could take up to fifty sittings for a single portrait.