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Watson, George (1767-1837) (DNB00)


WATSON, GEORGE (1767–1837), portrait-painter and first president of the (Royal) Scottish Academy, son of John Watson and Frances Veitch of Elliott, his wife, was born at his father's estate, Overmains, Berwickshire, in 1767. He received his early education in Edinburgh, and got some instruction in painting from Alexander Nasmyth [q. v.], but when eighteen years of age he went to London with an introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds [q. v.], who received him as a pupil. After two years spent in Sir Joshua's studio, he returned to Edinburgh, and established himself as a portrait-painter. In 1808 he was associated with other painters in starting a society of artists, which, however, only lasted a few years. He exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy and the British Institution, and about 1815 was invited to London to paint a number of portraits, including those of the dean of Canterbury and Benjamin West. In 1820, in spite of much opposition from the Royal Institution, the Scottish Academy was founded, and Watson, who had been president of the previous society, was elected to the same office in the new one, the ultimate success of which is largely due to his tact and ability. He continued president until his death, which took place in Edinburgh on 24 Aug. 1837, a few months before the academy received its royal charter.

It is said that he 'long maintained an honourable rivalry with Raeburn' [see Raeburn, Sir Henry], hot, although his grasp of character was decided, his executive power considerable, and his work belongs to a fine convention, his portraiture lacks the qualities which give that of the other enduring interest. He is represented in the National Gallery of Scotland by portraits of two brother artists, Benjamin West and Alexander Skirving; and in the Scottish Portrait Gallery by a number of portraits, including one of himself, and one of William Smellie, which some consider his best piece of work. Shortly after his return from his first visit to London he married Rebecca, daughter of William Smellie, printer and naturalist, who, with five children, survived him.

Their son, William Smellie Watson (1796-1874), was born in Edinburgh in 1796, and, like his father and his cousin, Sir John Watson Gordon [q. v.], became a portrait-painter. He was a pupil of his father's, studied at the Trustees' Academy, and from 1815, for five years, in the schools of the London Royal Academy, and worked for a year with Sir David Wilkie [q. v.], while that artist was painting 'The Penny Wedding' and other pictures. Returning to Edinburgh, he made a good connection as a portrait-painter, became one of the founders of the Scottish Academy, and for nearly fifty years exhibited with unfailing regularity. He solely confined himself to portraiture: 'The Ornithologist' is only one of a class of portraits fancifully named; and while his pictures were esteemed admirable likenesses by his contemporaries, they have little attraction as works of art.

He died in Edinburgh on 6 Nov. 1874. He was a devoted student of natural history, particularly ornithology, and formed an extensive collection of specimens, which he bequeathed to Edinburgh University.

[Anderson's Scottish Nation, 1876; Scotsman, 7 Nov. 1874; Redgrave's, Bryan's, and Graves' Dicts.; Cats. of Scottish National and Portrait Galleries; Harvey's Notes on the Royal Scottish Academy.]

J. L. C.