Hay RSA, George H (1831-1912)

Hay RSA, George H (1831-1912)

George H Hay was a Scottish figure painter predominantly known for domestic genre scenes and historical costume paintings. Hailing from Leith, Edinburgh, his delicately rendered narratives were delivered with wit, care and sensitivity.

Following his training under Robert Scott Lauder, his early works tended to describe nondescript moments from bygone centuries. In 1864, at the Royal Scottish Academy, he exhibited ‘Barber's Shop in the Time of Elizabeth’, which was conveyed with careful attention to the outfits. The influence of his master was evident.

However, these historical works were met with mixed reviews with some referring to them as ‘hybrid-historical’ or ‘costume paintings’. The press were enamoured by his level of detail, yet confused by the topics. So by the end of the 1860s, he turned his hand to something more tangible - scenes from novels by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). One example, ‘Ritchie Moniplies in Fleet Street’, taken from Scott’s ‘The Fortunes of Nigel’, gained public recognition.

As the decades passed, middle-class buyers began seeking art which conveyed relatable topics and this led to a rise in domestic pieces - everyday snapshots within ordinary homes. Hay embraced this new demand, depicting numerous themes of a tender nature, such as young ladies undertaking handicrafts, friends discussing a letter, and couples with marital dilemmas. These were met with broad appeal with one critic praising his “pose of the figures” and how the character of each subject was “well brought out.”

Over the course of 57 years, George H Hay exhibited 132 works at the Royal Scottish Academy where he was elected a member and later its secretary. An accomplished draughtsman with a gentle sense of humour.


Royal Scottish Academy, Dundee.

Public Collections

Hospitalfield, Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture.


George H. Hay RSA RSW (1831–1912) was a Scottish artist. His narrative paintings are often inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott. In 1878 he founded the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours.


Born in Leith, Scotland, to Peter Hay, a silk dyer.

Apprenticed to the architect Alexander Black.

Studied drawing at the Trustees Academy under Robert Scott Lauder. Other students included William Quiller Orchardson, William McTaggart, and Hugh Cameron, who would become a close associate.

Studied modelling at the Watt School of Art under Gourlay Steell.

Married Jane Maria Josephine Macmahon, a merchant’s daughter, in Donnybrook, Dublin.


Debuted at the Royal Scottish Academy. He exhibited 132 works between 1856 and 1913.


Elected an Associate Member of the Royal Scottish Academy.


Reviewed in the Daily Review (Edinburgh) following an exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy.

“Mr George Hay gives us, in a picture of good size, an interesting peep into a ‘Barber's Shop in the Time of Elizabeth.’ The artist has evidently taken some pains to preserve historical accuracy and has infused some quiet humour into his figures. The other picture is of a ‘Village Shop.’”


Lived in Edinburgh.


Elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy.


Co-founded the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours (RSW).


Began sharing a studio with Hugh Cameron.


Appointed as Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy. A position he held until 1907.

Reviewed in the Dundee Advertiser following an exhibition in Dundee.

“‘The Spae-wife’, by George Hay, R.S.A., is a very pleasing picture in a style not often attempted by him, and yet very successfully managed. There is much delicate suggestion in the pose of the figures, and the ‘character’ of each of the subjects is well brought out.”




Royal Scottish Academy

“George Hay was born on 21st June 1831 at Green Tree House, Leith Walk, in which neighbourhood his father, Mr Peter Hay, carried on his business of silk dyer. Leith Walk has long ceased to be associated with such rural amenities as the name of the artist’s birthplace implies, but in those days, and for long afterwards, a considerable stretch of country intervened between Edinburgh and Leith.

Mr Hay, after passing through the classes at the High School of Edinburgh, was apprenticed to Mr Alexander Black, Architect, where he was for some years associated with his lifelong friend and brother Academician Mr Hugh Cameron. His inclinations, however, were towards a different branch of art. At the Trustees Academy, where he studied drawing under Robert Scott Lauder, Mr. Hay made the acquaintance of many other artists who have since made a name for themselves, and for the Scottish School, both here and in London. He also studied modelling at the Watt School of Art, under Mr. Gourlay Steell.

Mr Hay’s name first appears in the Academy catalogue for 1856. Then and for two or three years thereafter he is represented by one picture only, and the subjects are not such as we associate with Mr Hay’s art; indeed it is not till the early sixties that he seems to find his méderin such works as ‘Money Lender and Victim,’ 1862; ‘A Barber’s Shop in the time of Elizabeth,’ 1864; ‘Raleigh’s Disciples,’ 1865; ‘The Spae Wife,’ 1875; and not till the close of that decade does there appear the first of those illustrations of the humours of Scott, ‘Ritchie Moniplies in Fleet Street,’ which we specially associate with Mr, Hay’s talent.

This was followed later by the kindred subjects ‘Caleb Balderston’s Ruse’ and ‘Peter Peebles capturing Allan Fairford,’ which may be said to have established his popularity with the public. More sombre themes were not awanting, and such works as ‘The Haunted Chamber’ and ‘The Warrant, 1745,’ provided an appropriate foil for the lighter vein of the better-known series.

On the technical side, Mr. Hay’s subjects were often rendered with a daintiness of touch and delicacy of colour scheme which harmonised well with the work in hand.

Elected an Associate in 1863, and a full member of the Academy in 1876, Mr Hay was appointed Secretary in 1881. He held that office under four Presidents, and only demitted its duties in 1907, on which occasion, at a Private View of the Exhibition, and in presence of the Lord Provost Magistrates, and Town Council of the city, he was presented by his fellow members with a piece of silver plate and a purse of sovereigns in recognition of his long and faithful services. At the same date he became an Honorary retired Academician.

In his younger days, Mr Hay was an enthusiastic volunteer. Amongst the first to join No. 1 (Artists’ Company) of the Edinburgh City Artillery, then under the command of Captain Noél Paton, he rose through the various grades, till during the later years of his service, he was in command of the company. Mr Hay, who had reached his eighty-second year, died on 31st August.”

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