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Reid, Sir Georgefree

  • Jennifer Melville

Sir George Reid (1841–1913)

by William Edward Gray, 1911

Reid, Sir George (1841–1913), portrait painter, was born on 31 October 1841 in the house above his father's shop at 29 Queen Street, Aberdeen, the fourth of thirteen children and the third son of George Reid, blacksmith and ironmonger, and his wife, Esther, née Tait. Two of his brothers, Archibald Reid and Samuel Reid (1854–1912), also became artists. He was educated at a school in Constitution Street, Aberdeen, then at Isaac Hill's seminary in Queen Street, and next at the Aberdeen Trades School. At an early age he had begun to sketch in the margins of his schoolbooks, copying engravings and newspaper illustrations. He was enrolled in Mr Cleland's evening drawing class, which was held in the Mechanics' Institute in Aberdeen. In 1853 he was sent to Aberdeen grammar school, but his time there was brought to an abrupt end nine months later when his father was declared bankrupt. The shop and its contents were sold and the family moved into a flat above a baker's shop.

On 10 July 1854 Reid began a seven-year apprenticeship with the lithographic firm of Keith and Gibb. There he worked on the illustrations for John Stuart's Sculptured Stones of Scotland (published for the Spalding Club in 1856). In 1857–8 he enrolled in the Merchants' Company volunteer force but after four years resigned in order to devote more of his spare time to sketching. He also took painting lessons with Willie Niddrie, a portrait painter who had studied under James Giles, a member of the Royal Scottish Academy. At the end of the apprenticeship, on 31 October 1861, he entered as a student at the Board of Trustees School of Art in Edinburgh. He wrote a review of a visit to the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in London, in which he revealed his admiration for the work of J. E. Millais (Aberdeen Herald, 18 June 1864); his own work at this time shows a debt to that of Millais, both in subject and treatment.

Obliged to support his family, Reid returned to Aberdeen in 1864, where he earned a living by colouring photographs, working on illustrations for local newspapers, and copying pages of the Book of Deer for the Spalding Club. When his painting Spynie Castle was accepted to hang at the 1865 annual exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, Horatio MacCulloch took the liberty of touching up the work, without Reid's permission. The incident was widely reported and Reid took it as a compliment. The Aberdonian art critic and collector John Forbes White wanted to introduce Reid to the realist artists whom he knew and whose work he collected, and in 1866 funded him to study with Gerrit Mollinger for two months in the Netherlands. Seeing the work of contemporary Dutch artists and old masters, such as Rembrandt, transformed Reid's art. He now emphasized tonality over colour and depicted ordinary working people in undramatic landscapes, exhibiting a new freedom in his painting technique and using large brushes and pure oil paint, rather than the by then rather old-fashioned technique of painting using diluted glazes, applied with fine brushes, that many British artists still favoured. By 1869 Reid had been completely converted to this new way of painting.

Reid's adoption of European realism was met with consternation by some older members of the Royal Scottish Academy but many of his contemporaries—including G. P. Chalmers, Joseph Farquharson, William McTaggart, and W. D. Mackay—also travelled to the Netherlands and came to share his sympathies, abandoning the tenets of Victorian narrative painting earlier than most of their English counterparts. In 1868 White and Reid, writing pseudonymously as Veri Vindex, published a lengthy pamphlet, Thoughts on Art and Notes on the Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of 1868, in which they castigated the parochialism of many British painters. Instead they advocated contemporary French and Dutch art. Reid spent four months in Paris in 1869, studying under the history painter Adolphe Yvon. Although the painting style of his tutor was not to his taste he continued to develop his realist methods. In September 1871 Reid went to The Hague to study with Jozef Israëls, who had visited Aberdeen in 1870. He travelled to France in 1873 and around northern Europe in 1876 with his friend the theologian William Robertson Smith.

Reid was elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1870, and a full academician in 1877. He increasingly concentrated on portraiture. His distinctive style—Rembrandtesque atmosphere and use of chiaroscuro, free brushwork, subdued tonality, and an intense penetration of the sitter's psyche—found favour with his sitters. Although he did paint portraits of women and children his style was best suited to male sitters—lawyers, academics, provosts, and other members of the Scottish professional classes and, as his reputation rose, members of the Scottish aristocracy. Taking a studio at 22 Scotland Street, Edinburgh, he began to accept an increasing number of portrait commissions. His sitters included, in 1874, the toxicologist and physician Sir Robert Christison, whose portrait Reid painted for the Royal Society of Edinburgh; in 1875 Lord Saltoun; and in 1883 Thomas Stevenson, the lighthouse and harbour engineer (Scot. NPG). In 1879 Queen Victoria asked for examples of Reid's work to be sent to Balmoral and commissioned a portrait of Principal Tulloch of the University of St Andrews and the following year a portrait of the late Norman McLeod of the Church of Scotland.

In 1875 Reid purchased St Luke's, Kepplestone (now the Gordon Highlanders Museum), on the outskirts of Aberdeen. He had it remodelled and extended by the architect William Leiper, and it became his summer residence. For the next decade he spent his time there painting flowers, pioneering in Scotland a new and distinctively French-style technique of seemingly spontaneous still lifes, often of wild or garden flowers plopped into a vase or thrown onto a surface. His flowers would be simply, or even casually and carelessly, arranged in order to give the impression of a moment in real time. They were distinguished by their dark indeterminate backgrounds, particularly vigorous brushwork, and uncluttered composition. In eighteen years Reid painted fifty-three flower pieces. These were exhibited widely and went on to influence the next generation of Scottish artists. He was also a skilled landscape artist and throughout his career executed landscape scenes and also many townscapes—including views of Jedburgh, Dunblane, Durham, Montrose, and Venice (all Aberdeen Art Gallery).

Reid painted very few narrative pictures, one notable exception being Savonarola's Last Sleep of 1879 (Aberdeen Art Gallery), for which his younger brothers Archy and Sam were the models. He was also a talented etcher and illustrated several books, including Life of a Scottish Naturalist: Thomas Edward (1876) and Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk (1881). On 12 December 1882 he married Margaret (Mia) Best, daughter of Thomas Best, a banker of Aberdeen. After their marriage they lived at 40 Heriot Row, Edinburgh. As with his landscapes and flower paintings Reid's portraits became gradually less detailed and more atmospheric and powerful. Some of his finest portraits came towards the end of his career: his romantic depiction of J. S. Blackie (1892; Scot. NPG) and his arresting portrait of the golfer Tom Morris (1903; St Andrews Golf Club).

In August 1891, on the death of Sir William Fettes Douglas, Reid was elected president of the Royal Scottish Academy and in November 1891 was knighted. He was also awarded honorary degrees by the universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. Although in his own work he continued to embrace new movements in art and changing fashions, he earned a reputation for being conservative, obdurate, and unsupportive of the younger generation. He defended the position of the academy from the threat of new bodies like the Scottish Society of Artists. Reid had welcomed the academy's supplementary charter of 1891, which had conferred the right to increase the number of associate members, but by 1893 he was convinced that this had gone too far. Twenty-two new associates had been elected between March 1892 and March 1893, thus almost doubling their total number. Reid feared for the decisions made by these young men—particularly when the academicians, because of their age, ill health, or non-residence, were rarely represented in good number. He wanted the number of associates to be limited to forty. Resentment against him was increased when he gave an interview in which he described the attempts of Scotland's young artists to follow modern French art as 'simply an impertinence' (Westminster Gazette, 4 Feb 1893). In the ensuing controversy the Glasgow artists whom Reid had criticized decided not to reply, but C. Blatherwick, president of the Glasgow Art Club, did so for them (Art Journal, April 1893). Reid offered his resignation in 1894 but was persuaded to stay on; however, with a groundswell of dissension, his position became untenable. In 1902 he once again submitted his resignation, and it was accepted.

After his resignation Reid moved to Somerset, where he dictated his reminiscences and continued to paint portraits. He was also closely involved in the 1905 extension to Aberdeen Art Gallery, playing a major part in determining the layout of the building and what it would contain. He died at his home, Hillylands, Oakhill, Somerset, on 9 February 1913, and was buried at St Peter's cemetery, Aberdeen. It was unfortunate that his presidency of the Royal Scottish Academy, which resulted in a lasting view of him as staid and uncompromising, obscured his achievements as an extremely talented and successful artist who played a critical role in the introduction of realism and ultimately modern art to Scotland and subsequently Great Britain.


  • J. Melville, ‘John Forbes White and George Reid, artists and patrons in north-east Scotland, 1860–1920’, PhD diss., U. Edinb., 2000
  • G. Reid, letters and papers, Aberdeen Art Gallery, George Reid archive
  • M. Reid, account of the life and career of George Reid (4 vols.), 1883, Aberdeen Art Gallery, George Reid archive
  • The Times (11 Feb 1913)
  • A. S. Walker, ‘The portraits of George Reid’, The Studio, 55 (April 1912), 168–78
  • A. F. Lovat, ‘Sir George Reid, LLD, ex president RSA’, Scottish Art and Letters, 2 (Feb 1902–April 1903), 11–14
  • J. M. Gray, ‘George Reid RSA’, Art Journal (1882), 361–5
  • W. Armstrong, Scottish painters (1888)
  • W. Carnie, Reporting reminiscences (1902)
  • J. L. Caw, Scottish painting past and present, 1620–1908 (1908)
  • W. D. McKay, The Scottish school of painting (1906)
  • J. G. Millais, The life and letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 2 vols. (1899)
  • E. Pinnington, George Paul Chalmers and the art of his times (1896)
  • J. F. White, ‘The Royal Academy exhibition of 1873’, Contemporary Review (July 1873), 266–96
  • G. Baldwin Brown, ‘Sir George Reid PRSA’, Magazine of Art, 15 (1892), 11–14


  • Aberdeen Art Gallery


  • W. Quiller Orchardson, oil on canvas, 1860, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • Elliott & Fry, albumen cabinet card, 1870–99, NPG
  • G. P. Chalmers, oil on canvas, 1875, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • G. Reid, self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1882, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • G. Reid, self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1882, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • G. Reid, self-portrait, oil on cardboard, 1884, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; repro. in C. Boyanoski, Sympathetic realism: George A. Reid and the academic tradition (1986), 56, no.7
  • J. Pittendrigh MacGillivray, bronze bust on Peterhead marble, 1894, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • J. Pittendrigh MacGillivray, bronze on red marble, 1894, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • G. Reid, self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1894, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • J. Bowie, oil on canvas, 1900, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • W. E. Gray, vintage print, 1911, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. P. Chalmers, oils; Sotheby's, 13 Apr. 1976, lot 237a, illus. in cat.
  • A. A. Inglis, portrait, repro. in Year's Art (1897)
  • J. Pittendrigh MacGillivary, bronze, Scot. NPG
  • G. Reid, oils, Royal Scot. Acad.
  • half-tone from photograph, repro. in R. Muther, The history of Modern Painting, 3 (1896), 687
  • portrait, repro. in Magazine of Art, 15, 35

Wealth at Death

£62,404 15s. 2d.: confirmation, 16 April 1913, CCI