Sir   John   Watson   Gordon, R. A.

(1788 - 1 June 1864)

Born in Edinburgh (1798-1864). Student of Trustees Academy, Edinburgh. In his early life painted genre and historical pictures, but devoted himself almost exclusively to portraits in his later years, painting a large number of his more distinguished countrymen. He was one of the first members of the Royal Scottish Academy, and elected its President in 185}. He exhibited frequently in the London Royal Academy, of which he was made Associate in 1841, and Academician ten later. He was appointed by the Queen Limner for Scotland, and received the order of knighthood.

"Sir John Gordon continued for many years the great Scottish portrait-painter, having in a considerable measure the qualities of neatness, vigor, and clearness, which from the days of Raeburn have become identified with the best Scottish portrait-painting, so as to be almost a tradition." - Mrs. Tytler's Modern Painters.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Works & Biographical Sketches, Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.

He was born John Watson in Edinburgh, the eldest son of Captain Watson, R.N., a cadet of the family of Watson of Overmains, in the county of Berwick. He was educated specially with a view to joining the Royal Engineers. He entered as a student in the government school of design, under the management of the Board of Manufactures. he showed a natural aptitude for art, and his father was persuaded to allow him to adopt it as his profession. Captain Watson was himself a skilful draughtsman, and his brother George Watson, afterwards president of the Royal Scottish Academy, was a highly respected portrait painter, second only to Sir Henry Raeburn, who was also a friend of the family.

In 1808 John exhibited a picture "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" at the Lyceum in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh -- the first public exhibition of paintings in that city -- and continued for some years to exhibit fancy subjects; but, although freely and sweetly painted, they were altogether without the force and character which stamped his portrait pictures as the works of a master. After the death of Sir Henry Raeburn in 1823, he succeeded to much of his practice. He assumed in 1826 the name of Gordon.

One of the earliest of his famous sitters was Sir Walter Scott, who sat for a first portrait in 1820. Then came J. G. Lockhart in 1821; Professor Wilson, 1822 and 1850, two portraits; Sir Archibald Alison, 1839; Dr Chalmers, 1844; a little later De Quincey, and Sir David Brewster, 1864. Among his most important works may be mentioned the 1st Marquess of Dalhousie; Sir Alexander Hope (1835); Lord President Hope; and Dr. Chalmers. These, unlike his later works, are generally rich in colour. The full length of Dr. Alexander Brunton (1844), and Dr. Lee, the principal of the university (1846), mark a modification of his style, which ultimately resolved itself into extreme simplicity, both of colour and treatment.

During the last twenty years of his life he painted many distinguished Englishmen who came to Edinburgh to sit to him. And it is significant that David Cox, the landscape painter, on being presented with his portrait, subscribed for by many friends, chose to go to Edinburgh to have it executed by Watson Gordon, although he neither knew the painter personally nor had ever before visited the country. Among the portraits painted during this period, in what may be termed his third style, are De Quincey; General Sir Thomas Macdougall Brisbane; the Prince of Wales, Lord Macaulay, Sir M. Packington, Lord Murray, Lord Cockburn, Lord Rutherfurd and Sir John Shaw-Lefevre.

These latter pictures are mostly clear and grey, sometimes showing little or no positive colour, the flesh itself being very grey, and the handling extremely masterly, though never obtruding its cleverness. He was very successful in rendering acute observant character. A good example of his last style, showing pearly flesh-painting freely handled, yet highly finished, is his head of Sir John Shaw-Lefevre.

Gordon was one of the earlier members of the Royal Scottish Academy, and was elected' its president in 1850; he was at the same time appointed limner for Scotland to the queen, and received the honour of knighthood. Since 1841 he had been an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1851 he was elected a royal academician. Wikipedia

Portrait-painter, was born in Edinburgh in 1788. He was descended from the Watsons of Overmains, Berwickshire, and was son of Captain James Watson of the royal artillery, and nephew of George Watson, first president of the Scottish Academy. Watson was trained for the army; but before receiving his commission in the engineers, while studying drawing under John Graham in the Trustees' Academy, Edinburgh, he decided to adopt art as a profession. He frequented the studios of his uncle and Raeburn, a friend of the family, and his art training was conducted exclusively in Scotland.

In 1808 he contributed a scene from the 'Lay of the Last Minstrel' to the first public exhibition held in Edinburgh, which was followed by some historical and religious subjects painted with freedom and delicacy; but he soon turned to portraiture, to which he adhered for the rest of his life, and of which he was the leading practitioner in Scotland after the death of Raeburn in 1823. To distinguish himself from other portrait-painters named Watson then practising in Edinburgh, he assumed the style of Watson-Gordon, by which he is known, and thus appears for the first time in the catalogue of the 1826 exhibition of the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, of which he was an associate.

He executed numerous versions of his portrait of Sir Walter Scott, of which the original unfinished study, made in 1830 (Catalogue of Scottish Centenary Exhibition, 1871), is in the National Gallery of Scotland, and painted most of the Scottish celebrities of his time. Indeed many distinguished Englishmen visited Edinburgh to be portrayed by his hand, among the rest David Cox, the landscape-painter, of whom he executed the admirable three-quarter length, now the property of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, shown in the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, 1887.

His productions are full of character, reserve, and dignity, excellent as likenesses, and especially successful when they portray faces distinguished by intellect or by Scotch shrewdness. Among his earlier works are 'James Gibson Lockhart,' 1821, and 'Prof. John Wilson' (the first of two portraits), 1822. The 'Earl of Dalhousie,' 1833, in the Archers' Hall, Edinburgh; 'Lord Pres. Hope,' in the Parliament House, Edinburgh; and 'Dr. Chalmers,' 1844, in the Peel Gallery, are important examples of the full-lengths of his middle period, when his works were rich and varied in colour and his execution was distinguished by great sweetness. His portraits of 'Dr. Brunton,' and 'Principal Lee,' in the Edinburgh University, indicate a change of style culminating in his latest manner, characterised by simplicity and even austerity of colour, the draperies and accessories being usually subordinated to the head, which is handled with great freedom, yet high finish, and on which is concentrated the main light and warmth of the picture, the flesh itself tending towards greyness of tone, clear and pearly in his finest efforts, but sometimes a little opaque and leaden in his less successful productions.

Two of the eleven works that represent him in the National Gallery of Scotland are excellent examples of this period -- the 'Sir John G. Shaw-Lefevre' and 'Roderick Gray, Provost of Peterhead.' An even finer version of the latter, in the Merchants' Hall, Edinburgh, was one of three portraits which gained a first-class medal at Paris in 1855. His last portrait, 'Sir David Brewster,' was presented by his brother to the National Gallery, London, and has been deposited in the National Portrait Gallery. He was one of the artists who were admitted members of the Scottish Academy in 1829, and he was represented in the exhibitions of that body from 1830 to 1865. In March 1850 he was elected to succeed Sir William Allan as P.R.S.A., and shortly afterwards he was knighted and appointed H.M. limner for Scotland. He became A.R.A. in 1841, and ten years later R.A., and he exhibited in the Royal Academy from 1827 till his death, in Edinburgh, on 1 June 1864. His works are very numerous, and many of them have been engraved. His brother and sister endowed in his memory the 'Watson-Gordon Professorship of Fine Art,' instituted in the Edinburgh University in 1879.

[Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879, vol. x.; Harvey's Notes on the Early History of the Royal Scottish Academy; Catalogues of First Public Exhibition, Edinburgh, 1808, Royal Institution, Edinburgh, Royal Academy, Royal Scottish Academy, National Gallery, 1883, and National Gallery of Scotland; Portraits in Merchants' Hall, Edinburgh, and Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, 1887; Edinburgh University Calendar, 1873-1874, 1880-1881; Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 22, by John Miller Gray

Sir John Watson Gordon (1788-1864)

We announced last week the death of Sir John Watson Gordon, the eminent portrait-painter; we have now engraved a portrait of him, after a photograph taken from the life. He was personally much esteemed in the city of Edinburgh, where he was born and died; while he enjoyed a European reputation as one of the greatest of British masters in his line of art. He was born about 1790, the son of Captain Watson, R.N., of Overmains, Berwickshire; and could through his father, claim kindred with Sir Walter Scott, through his mother with Robertson, the historian, and Falconer, the author of "Shipwreck." Young Watson studied four years under John Graham in the Trustees' Academy, where Wilkie and Allan were also students. He early devoted himself to portrait-painting, and pursued it with unwearied diligence. During his long career he has painted many of the most distinguished Scotchmen -- including Sir Walter Scott, Professor Wilson, and Dr. Chalmers. The acknowledge successor of Raeburn, Sir John Watson Gordon was no copyist or imitator of that artist. Raeburn took the poetical side of the Scotch character, Sir Johnthe prosaic. The former idealised his portraits; the latter was strictly realistic. The works of Sir John Watson Gordon are wonderfully true to nature and full of the sagacity, shrewdness, and dry humour which often characterise the Scottish physiognomy. He was one of the earliest and most strenuous supporters of the Royal Scottish Academy. On the death of Sir William Allan, in 1850, he was elected its President; at the same time he received the honour of knighthood and the appointment of Limner to Her Majesty for Scotland. In 1851 Sir John was elected Academician by the Royal Academy of London. In 1855 he sent to the Universal Exposition of Paris two portraits, for which the jury awarded him a first-class medal. Until his last illness Sir John preserved his firmness of hand and correctness of eye unimpaired. His pictures in the Exhibition at Edinburgh, which has just closed, showed no traces of failing vigour. By may of his fellow-citizens he will be remembered with affection and regret.

The Illustrated London News, June 18, 1864.

Sir J. W. Gordon: (1788-1864)
At Catherine-bank House, Edinburgh, aged 73, Sir John Watson Gordon, President of the Royal Scottish Academy. The deceased, who was the eldest son of Capt. James Watson, R.N., was born in Edinburgh in 1790. He was descended from the Watsons of Overmains, a respectable Berwickshire family, and through his father could claim kindred with Sir Walter Scott, and through his mother with Robertson the historian, and Falconer the author of the "Ship wreck." His father rose to the rank of post-captain in the navy, and was present at the siege of Gibraltar, and at Admiral Keppel's famous action. Young Watson studied for four years under John Graham in the Trustees' Academy, where Wilkie and Allan were also students, and dallied for a time with historical and fancy painting, before he discovered that the true bent of his genius lay in another direction. He early devoted himself, however, to portrait painting, and pursued it with the unwearied diligence and persevering industry which marked his character. During his long career he has painted many of the most eminent citizens of Edinburgh, as well as many of the most distinguished Scotchmen resident else where. Sir Walter Scott, Professor Wilson, Dr. Chalmers, Principal Lee, Dr. Brunton, Lord President Boyle, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Dalhousie, the Provost of Peterhead, the Earl of Aberdeen, Lord Dunfermline, are but a few among the vast gallery of distinguished Scotchmen who still live on his canvas, and serve to prove his excellence in that delightful branch of art which "diffuses friendship and vivifies tenderness, animates the affections of the present, and preserves the presence of the dead." Yet, though the acknowledged successor of Raeburn, Sir John Watson Gordon was no copyist or imitator of that great artist. No two styles can be more dissimilar. Raeburn took the poetical side of the Scotch character; Sir John the prosaic. The former idealized his portraits; the latter was strictly realistic. Sir John Watson Gordon was one of the earliest, most strenuous, and most consistent supporters of the Royal Scot tish Academy, and to him it owes much of its prosperity; and especially the formation of a good gallery of pictures at a very moderate cost -- a result which was in a great measure owing to his correct and discriminating judgment. Nor was the Academy ungrateful for this assistance, nor unmindful of Sir John's great professional merits; for, on the death of Sir William Allan in 1850, he was elected President of the Academy in his place, and at the same time received the honour of knighthood, and the appointment of Limner to her Majesty for Scotland. At the close of that year, the elite of the northern metropolis in art, science, and literature, entertained Sir John in the Waterloo Rooms, in order to celebrate his election as President, and to mark their appreciation of his amiable and delightful personal character. In 1851 Sir John was elected Academician by the Royal Academy of London; and in 1855 he sent to the Universal Exposition of Paris two portraits, for which the jury awarded him a first-class medal, and which are highly praised by that accomplished critic Theophile Gautier, in his brilliant volumes on that splendid Exhibition. Until the sudden attack which carried him off, Sir John preserved his firmness of hand and correctness of eye unimpaired, and his pictures in the Edinburgh Exhibition of the present year shewed no traces of failing vigour -- in deed, the portrait of Archibald liennet, (sic) Esq., which was one of them, may justly be ranked among his most successful efforts. The professional character of the deceased is thus estimated by the "Athenaeum:" -- "Apparently almost heedless of colour, this artist seized with extraordinary vigour the salient points of a sitter's countenance, and gave them with the force of life. It would seem that not even Reynolds surpassed his brother knight in the swift and certain manner of his practice. Very often his pictures were little else than sketches on a large scale. This has been especially the case of late years, and is remarkably so in the portraits now in the Royal Academy; but even these display such admirable mastery of form and knowledge of personal character, that they are more precious than most men's completed likenesses. Gordon's feeling for tone exhibited itself in every work he produced, and really did, in some degree, compensate, by the richness of its manifestations, for the effect of what was with him something approaching colour blindness. The last-named shortcoming was less perceived in Edinburgh than in the metropolis -- an effect to be expected. It should be said in his honour that he always painted in a manly way; never exaggerating or aiming at sentiment, he never fell into sentimentality. He could put a figure on the canvas better than any of his contemporaries who were portrait painters. The characteristic love of the mass of his Bitters for black garments found no corrective in Gordon's mind or taste; he not unfrequently snerified (sic) (perhaps signified?) too much of the general brilliancy of his pictures to the effectiveness of the head; but that head was always worth looking at when you got to it."

Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, for the Year 1864, John Henry and James Parker, June 18, 1864.

View painter's art:

Sir John Watson Gordon [new window view]