He was born at Brechin, in Angus, studied in London in the schools of the Royal Academy and worked in Joseph Nollekens's studio. He then proceeded work in Italy, where he executed some fine copies from Titian; and at Antwerp he made studies from the works of Rubens.
Returning to Scotland in 1827, he settled in Edinburgh, occupying the house and studio which had formerly belonged to the Scottish painter Raeburn at 32 York Place. Soon he attained a wide practice as a portrait-painter, and among his sitters were Lord Jeffrey, Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling, and many of the most celebrated Scotsmen of the time.
His portrait of Sir Walter Scott was so popular that he executed some twenty replicas of it, for seven of which he received fresh sittings. His works are distinguished by excellent draftsmanship, by directness and simplicity of treatment, and by well-marked individuality.
He died in Edinburgh on 21 July 1875.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Smith, Colvin". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- L. H. Cust, ‘Irvine, James (1822–1889)’, rev. Jennifer Melville, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 Sept 2013