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 was educated specially with a view to his joining the Royal Engineers. He entered as a student in the government school of design, under the management of the Board of Manufactures. His natural taste for art quickly developed itself, and 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. In the year 1808 John 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 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. He assumed in 1826 the name of Gordon. 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 De Quincey, and Sir David Brewster, 1864. Among his most important works may be mentioned the earl of Dalhousie (1833), in the Archers' Hall, Edinburgh; Sir Alexander Hope (1835), in the county buildings, Linlithgow; Lord President Hope, in the Parliament House; and Dr Chalmers. These, 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 on 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 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, 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. 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 obtruding its cleverness. He was very successful in rendering acute observant character. A good example of his last style, showing pearly flesh-painting freely handled, yet highly finished, is his head of Sir John Shaw Lefevre.
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 for Scotland to the queen, and received the honour of knighthood. Since 1841 he had been an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1851 he was elected a royal academician. He died on the 1st of June 1864.
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