1902 Encyclopedia > Sir John Watson Gordon

Sir John Watson Gordon
Scottish painter

SIR JOHN WATSON GORDON, (1788-1864), Scottish painter, was the eldest son of Captain Watson, R.N., a cadet of the family of Watson of Overmains, in the county of Berwick. He was born in Edinburgh in 1788, and, it being his father's desire that he should enter the army, was educated specially with a view to his joining the Royal Engineers. As drawing was even at that period con-sidered a not inappropriate accomplishment for the scientific service, he was, while waiting for his commission, entered as a student in the Government school of design, then as now under the management of the Board of Manufactures. With the opportunity, his natural taste for art quickly developed itself, and his industry and progress were such that 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 Scottish Academy, stood high as a portrait painter, second only to Sir Henry Raeburn, who also was a friend of the family. Between the studios of his uncle and his friend, John Watson seems to have thought he had every necessary assistance a young artist required, and neither then nor at a future period showed any desire for foreign study ; his art consequently is more purely of native growth than that of any of his contempor-aries. In the year 1808 he sent to the exhibition of the Lyceum in Nicolson Street a subject from the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and continued for some years to exhibit fancy subjects; but, although freely and sweetly painted, they were altogether without the force and character which in his own proper walk 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; and as there were at that time in Edinburgh four artists of the name of Watson, all of them portrait painters, he assumed in 1826 the name of Gordon, by which he is best known. Mixing a good deal in literary and scientific society, he painted most of the notabilities who lived in or visited the northern metro-polis during his career; 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 DeQuincey; and Sir David Brewster, 1864, being the last picture he painted. Among his most important works may be mentioned the earl of Dalhousie, 1833, now in the Archers' Hall, Edin-burgh ; Sir Alexander Hope, 1835, in the county buildings, Linlithgow; Lord President Hope, in the Parliament House; and Dr Chalmers, 1844. These are all full lengths, and were exhibited in London, where they attracted great atten-tion (the Chalmers portrait was purchased some years later by Sir Robert Peel, and is now in the Peel Gallery); they belong to his middle period, and are distinguished by great sweetness in execution, and, unlike his later works, are generally rich in colour. The full length of Dr Brunton, 1844, and Dr Lee, the principal of the university, 1846, both in the staircase of the College Library, 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 of the position he held in the esteem of artists themselves 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, the opium eater, in the National Portrait Gallery, London; General Sir Thomas Macdougall Brisbane, in the Royal Society; the prince of Wales, Lord Macaulay, Sir M. Packington, Lord Murray, Lord Cockburn, Lord Rutherford, and Sir John Shaw Lefevre, in the Scottish National Gallery, and a host of others, for latterly he not only possessed great facility of brush but was industrious to a fault. 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 ob-truding its cleverness. He was very successful in rendering acute observant character, and there is a look of mobility of feature, in repose it is true, but suggesting that the eye could twinkle and the lips relax. As an example of his last style, showing pearly flesh painting freely handled, yet highly finished, the head of Sir John Shaw Lefevre will hold its own in any school.

John Watson 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 to her majesty for Scotland, and received the honour of knight-hood. Since 1841 he had been an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1851 he was elected a Royal Academician. Sir John continued to paint with little if any diminution of power until within a very few weeks of his death, which occurred on the 1st of June 1864.

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