Margaret Gillies

(7 August 1803 - 20 July 1887)

Miniature and water-colour painter, was the second daughter (the fourth of five children) of William Gillies, a Scotch merchant settled in Throgmorton Street, London, where she was born. She was baptized on 6 February 1804 at St Benet Fink, Threadneedle Street. Having lost her mother when eight years old, and her father having met with reverses, she and her younger sister, Mary, were placed under the care of their uncle, Adam Gillies, lord Gillies [q. v.], one of the judges of the court of session in Scotland, by whom they were educated, and subsequently introduced to the best society in Edinburgh. There she met Sir Walter Scott, Lord Erskine, Lord Jeffrey, and other famous men; but before she was twenty she determined to earn for herself an honourable livelihood, and returned with her sister to her father's home in London. Mary Gillies became an authoress, and died in 1870, while Margaret took the somewhat bold step of becoming a professional artist. She received some lessons in miniature-painting from Frederick Cruickshank, and quickly gained a reputation in that branch of art, although she had had no regular artistic training. Before she was twenty-four she was commissioned to paint a miniature of the poet Wordsworth, at whose residence, Rydal Mount, she spent several weeks. She painted also a portrait of Charles Dickens, and one of Mrs. Marsh, the novelist, and for many successive years contributed portraits to the exhibitions of the Royal Academy. She then went for a while to Paris, where she worked in the studios of Hendrik and Ary Scheffer, and on her return to England she exhibited from time to time portraits in oil. It was, however, not long before she devoted herself to water-colour-painting, usually choosing domestic, romantic, or sentimental subjects, and it is on these that her chief distinction rests. In 1852 she was elected an associate of the Old (now the Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours, and was a constant contributor to its exhibitions down to the year of her death. Some of the best of her exhibited works were ‘Past and Future,’ 1855, and ‘The Heavens are telling,’ 1856, both of which have been engraved; ‘Rosalind and Celia,’ 1857; ‘Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cavern of Despair,’ ‘An Eastern Mother,’ and ‘Vivia Perpetua in Prison,’ 1858; ‘A Father and Daughter,’ 1859; ‘Imogen after the Departure of Posthumus,’ 1860; ‘Beyond,’ 1861; ‘The Wanderer,’ 1868; ‘Prospero and Miranda,’ 1874; ‘Cercando Pace,’ a beautiful drawing in three compartments, 1875; and ‘The Pilgrimage,’ which was exhibited at the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester in 1887. Her last work was ‘Christiana by the River of Life,’ exhibited in 1887. She lived for many years in Church Row, Hampstead, but died at The Warren, Crockham Hill, Kent, of pleurisy, after a few days' illness. She was buried on 23 July in the churchyard at Crockham Hill.

Times, 26 July 1887; Academy 30 July 1887; Miss Clayton's English Female Artists, 1876, ii. 87–94; Exhibition Catalogues of the Royal Academy, 1832–61; Exhibition Catalogues of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours, 1852–87; Mary Howitt: An Autobiography, 1889, ii.; Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21, Gillies, Margaret by Robert Edmund Graves; A Catalogue of the National Gallery of British Art at South Kensington, with a Supplement Containing Works by Modern Foreign Artists and Old Masters – South Kensington Museum, Richard Redgrave, 1893.



There has just passed away, at the ripe age of nearly 84 years, a very remarkable woman. Miss Margaret Gillies -- remarkable not only for her talents but for the fact that she was one of the pioneers amongst English lady artists. Indeed, it is not too much to say that it is owing in a considerable degree to her example and exertions that the path of art has been made easy for all the sister-women who have come after her. When she, now gone 60 years since, determined to become an artist, and support herself by her own hands, she had to encounter strong opposition on the part both of relatives and friends, and on the part of members of the profession itself. In the words of an eminent artist of those days, "a woman could nor, possibly be at the same time an artist and a lady.” She lived to prove that a woman could be both, and having proved it, she has enabled many a one to claim her example as a reason for being allowed to follow art as a profession.

Margaret Gillies was born on the 7th August, 1803. Her father, William Gillies, was a London merchant, and in consequence of reverses of fortune he entrusted his two little daughters, who had lost their mother when Margaret was 8 and her sister 11 years old, to his brother, Lord Gillies, a Scotch judge. By the judge the two girls were educated, and in due time brought out into Edinburgh society, which at that time was famous for men of note and wit. Here Margaret Gillies met Sir Walter Scott, Lord Erskine, and Lord Jeffery, to mention only three of the best known names of the time. When she was about 20, however, an irresistible impulse to follow art as a profession to gain her own livelihood, and to be independent of relations, led her to give up the brilliant position in society which her uncle’s house conferred, and to return with her sister to London, there to undertake the painting of portraits “for money” -- an unheard of step in those days. In a short time she gained considerable fame as a miniature painter. She painted Wordsworth, Dickens, and Mrs. Marsh, the novelist; and for many years exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy a goodly number of portraits. She studied oil painting for a short time in Paris under the brothers Hendrik and Ary Scheffer, and painted a few works in oil. But water-colour was the medium in which she was destined to acquire most fame. She joined the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1852 or 1858, and since that time has been a regular and valuable contributor to the Society's exhibitions. Amongst her best-known pictures are “Past and Future,” “The Wounded Page” and "Una and the Red Cross Knight." She died at Crockham-Hill in Kent, of pleurisy after a few days illness, and was buried in the little village churchyard on the slope of the hill, looking across the Eden Bridge Valley to the Sussex hills. Many beautiful wreaths were sent by loving friends to be placed on the coffin, amongst them one from the Royal Society of Water-Colour Painters, of which she had been so long a valued member.

[London North News And Finbury Gazette (Newspaper) July 30, 1887, London, Middlesex. (as written) ]

View painter's art: Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) [new window view]