James Cowie (artist)

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James Cowie
Born(1886-05-16)16 May 1886
Died18 April 1956(1956-04-18) (aged 69)
Known forPainting, drawing

James Cowie RSA (16 May 1886 – 18 April 1956) was a Scottish painter and teacher.[1] The quality of his portrait paintings and his strong linear style made him among the most individual Scottish painters of the 1920s and 1930s.[2] His work displayed meticulous draughtsmanship which was based on his studies of the Old Masters and his use of many preparatory drawings.[3][4]

Life and work[edit]

Cowie was born on a farm in Cuminestown, Aberdeenshire into a family of non-conformist farmers.[5] After attending Fraserburgh Academy he studied English Literature at Aberdeen University but failed to graduate. After obtaining a teacher training qualification in drawing, from the United Free Church Training College, he took a teaching position at Fraserburgh Academy in 1909.[6] He resigned this post to enroll at the Glasgow School of Art, where he completed his Diploma in two years between 1912 and 1914.[7][6] Shortly before the start of the First World War, Cowie was appointed art master at Bellshill Academy near Glasgow. During the war he registered as a conscientious objector and, after appearing before the Glasgow Military Service Tribunal, he agreed to serve in the Non-Combatant Corps.[8][5] He worked as a labourer at a camp near Edinburgh before being assigned, in October 1917, to the Agricultural Company Gordon Highlanders.[5] After the war, Cowie resumed teaching art at Bellshill where he remained for almost twenty years. During this time he continued to paint, often producing portraits of his students based on detailed preparatory sketches done in pencil or watercolour.[9]

Cowie held his first solo exhibition at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1935 and the same year he took the post of Head of Painting at Gray's School of Art.[8] In 1937 Cowie became the warden of the Patrick Allan Fraser School of Art at Hospitalfield House.[10] Cowie produced some of his finest work at Hospitalfield and also taught at the annual summer school there. He painted a number of group portraits of the other artists and students at Hospitalfield.[11] Among his pupils were Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Robert Henderson Blyth and Joan Eardley.[2] In October 1941 Cowie was commissioned by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to produce a portrait of a Scottish Civil Defence worker.[12] During the conflict he also ran a drawing class at a local Royal Navy base.[5]

Throughout the 1940s Cowie developed an interest in Surrealism and began to experiment with perspective in his works.[8] In 1944 he completed a large oil painting, Evening Star, notable for its use of metaphysical elements and objects placed within a landscape.[5] In 1948 the University of Edinburgh awarded Cowie an honorary degree.[7] A 1950 commission to paint a mural for the Usher Hall came to nothing.[11] In 1952 Cowie suffered a severe stroke from which he never fully recovered.[7]

In 1957 a memorial exhibition to Cowie was organised by the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council.



  1. ^ Grant M. Waters (1975). Dictionary of British Artists Working 1900-1950. Eastbourne Fine Art.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b Ian Chilvers (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860476 9.
  3. ^ Brian Stewart & Mervyn Cutten (1997). The Dictionary of Portrait Painters in Britain up to 1920. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 173 2.
  4. ^ "painting of the week". The Herald. 12 December 1998. Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e Gill Clarke (2018). Conflicting Views Pacifist Artists. Sansom & Company. ISBN 978 1 911408 31 4.
  6. ^ a b David Buckman (1998). Artists in Britain Since 1945 Vol 1, A to L. Art Dictionaries Ltd. ISBN 0 95326 095 X.
  7. ^ a b c Peter J.M. McEwan (1994). The Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 134 1.
  8. ^ a b c Frances Spalding (1990). 20th Century Painters and Sculptors. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 106 6.
  9. ^ Paul Harris & Julian Halsby (1990). The Dictionary of Scottish Painters 1600 to the Present. Canongate. ISBN 1 84195 150 1.
  10. ^ "Art reviews: James Cowie/ Stuart Franklin". The Scotsman. 25 April 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
  11. ^ a b Tate. "Catalogue entry for An Outdoor School of Painting". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
  12. ^ Imperial War Museum. "War artists archive; J.Cowie". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 8 May 2014.
  13. ^ "Obituary: Painter and teacher: Mr James Cowie". The Glasgow Herald. 19 April 1956. p. 9. Retrieved 2 October 2016.

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