Macbeth RA ROI RWS, Robert Walker (1848-1910)

Macbeth RA ROI RWS, Robert Walker (1848-1910)
Macbeth RA ROI RWS, Robert Walker (1848-1910)

Robert Walker Macbeth RA ROI RWS was a distinguished Scottish painter of landscapes, interior scenes and still lifes.

As a child, young Macbeth was surrounded by artistic endeavour and the associated bustle of the industry. His father, Norman Macbeth RSA (1821-1888), was an eminent portrait painter and undertook numerous commissions for dignitaries. These early experiences - the lengthy sittings, the academic community, the banter between peers, instilled in him a fascination for mankind. And more specifically, how an artist can work as a descriptive conduit between an individual’s spirit and the world at large.

His father provided initial tuition before he sought formal training in Germany and then via the Royal Scottish Academy. Emphasis was placed upon honing one’s drawing ability - a skill which served him well. Unlike his father, he opted to avoid portraiture in favour of landscapes and figure painting, debuting at the Dudley Gallery at the age of 21. He subsequently moved to London and joined the rising stars at The Graphic magazine as an illustrator.

His formative works can be described broadly as social realism, with Frederick Walker (1840-1875) a particular inspiration. Sir John Everett Millais described Walker as "the greatest artist of the century" - his gritty portrayals of rural workers were acutely honest. We see this in Macbeth’s ‘The Lincolnshire Gang’ and ‘The Potato Harvest’, which are back-breakingly rigorous. Each figure buckled with the weight of labour - carrying creaking baskets and tools, arching and tugging.

He’d decided upon these subjects following an article in The Times regarding the field labourers of Lincolnshire. On a whim, travelling to understand their struggles and capture their toil first-hand. He did so for interest, not for patrons - rarely did he conform to the requests of art connoisseurs. Both of these works are respectful, visceral, and real - and, importantly, lacking condescension. He quickly achieved various accolades, ultimately earning membership to several institutions including the Royal Academy, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, and the Royal Watercolour Society. Also recognised for his work as an etcher.

A restless artist, Macbeth continually sought new environments in which to garner ideas and observe the human condition. In 1880, it was Brittany, France, that encouraged him to produce several maritime paintings. And in 1884, Somerset imbued his brush with a hazy, cider-enriched, charm. It’s fair to say that, later in life, his subjects were viewed through the rose-tinted spectacles of comfortable middle age, perhaps after encountering the relaxed South-West.

Robert Walker Macbeth was a remarkable professional - diligent, passionate and fascinated by life. When asked to describe his recreational interests for a reference book, he simply wrote “Sleeping, when too dark to work”.

He’s represented at Tate Britain, the British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Museum, V&A, Guildhall Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Merton College at the University of Oxford, the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Princeton University Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.


Royal Academy, Grosvenor Gallery, Old Watercolour Society, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, New Galleries, Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Fine Art Society, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Manchester Art Gallery, Dudley Gallery.

Public Collections

Tate Britain, the British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Museum, V&A, Guildhall Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Merton College at the University of Oxford, the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Princeton University Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.



Born in Glasgow to Norman Macbeth RSA and Mary Macbeth (nee Walker).

Trained by his father, the portrait painter, Norman Macbeth.

Studied in Germany.

C. 1866

Enrolled at Edinburgh Life School (Royal Scottish Academy Schools).


Debuted at London's Dudley Gallery.


Moved to London.
Began working for The Graphic magazine as an illustrator.


Elected an associate of the Royal Watercolour Society.


Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Sunshine and Shade’.


Debuted at the Grosvenor Exhibition where he proceeded to exhibit annually.
Became a proficient etcher.


Elected a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.
Visited Brittany, France.


Elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.


Elected a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
Elected an associate of the Royal Academy.


Moved to Somerset.


Elected a member of the San Fernando Academy, Spain.


Married Lydia Esther Bates, daughter of General John Bates. Their daughter, Phillis Lydia Macbeth (also known as ‘Lydia Bilbrook’) became a well-known actress.


‘The Cast Shoe’ was acquired by the Chantrey Bequest and currently resides at Tate Britain.


Painted a mural ‘Opening of the Royal Exchange by Her Majesty Queen Victoria’, which can be viewed at the Royal Exchange in London.


Elected a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.


Elected a member of the Royal Academy.


Made an honorary member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.


Died in Holder's Green, near Lindsell, Essex.

Biography published in the The Art Journal (AL Baldry, 1890)

“If the careers of several artists are compared, a very curious amount of difference will be found in the way that each one expresses his sense of professional obligation. In one case the summary of many years' work will be simply a catalogue of more or less satisfactory achievements, each a repetition of the one that preceded it, and the whole list nothing more than an uninteresting record of plodding industry confined within narrow limits. In another case, there will be an extraordinary variety of effort and accomplishment, constant changes of direction, and an almost restless anxiety to break away from methodical expression of any special set of ideas.

The artist who chooses his groove early in life and refuses to allow any influence to divert him from it can hardly be called an engrossing subject for study. He may quite possibly be a specialist of extraordinary skill, and may deserve praise for having brought to perfection one or two picturesque tricks, but he is apt to become wearisome by the very completeness of his training. He is too placidly self-satisfied to stir any pulses, and, unimaginative himself, he pleases only those people who worship the obvious and hate the fatigue of thinking out subjects that are novel or out of the beaten track.

On the other hand, the restless wanderer over the whole range of artistic expression is an endless source of interest. He has a speculative charm, for it is hardly possible to prophesy the direction in which he may be expected at any moment to strike out in search of new ideals. He deals in surprises and has an attractive habit of experimenting that gives variety and vitality to his methods. To the general public, perhaps, he appeals less strongly than the conscientious plodder who has neither the will nor the power to be anything but a follower of a set pattern, for the plain men, who make up the bulk of what is called the general public, wish their art to be like their lives, methodical, commonplace, and strictly regulated by convention.

But the people who regard aestheticism as a living thing, and not a matter of mere mechanism, welcome the lover of experiment because he gives them something fresh to think about, and does not reduce everything to matter-of-fact rule; because, in fact, he has enthusiasm and a wholesome mind that is impatient of commercial restrictions, and is more concerned with the advocacy of great principles than with the cultivation of wide popularity.

It is this love of variety and this eager pursuit of novelty that make the work of Mr. R. W. Macbeth so instructive to every student of the artistic developments that have marked the latter half of this century. His record is one that will bear discussion and that will very well repay the closest analysis, for the more it is examined the more interesting will it be found to be in its manysidedness and consistent aim. Mr. Macbeth has never committed the mistake of treating the artist's profession as one in which strict attention to business is the first essential, and he has never sunk his individuality for the sake of catching popularity by painting only what the public think they want. Fortunately for the art of this country he has from the first realised completely that by following his own inclinations, and by exercising his particular powers of observation and thought, his chance of reaching the higher levels of aesthetic accomplishment would be far greater than it would have been if he had set himself to harp, year by year, on a single note in the hope that he might, by constant repetition, attract attention to himself and his doings. He has never permitted his ambition to excel as an artist to be dulled by the desire to amuse the common herd.

He has neither touted for popular approval nor has he surrendered an atom of his independence to ingratiate himself with the collector who likes to lay down the law about the way in which an artist's work ought to be done. In the process of mapping out his career Mr. Macbeth has, however, had the wisdom to allow his tastes to be guided by the traditions of one of the best schools of romantic painting that has ever flourished in this country.

He is today the chief representative of the movement that owed its vitality to Fred. Walker, G. J. Pinwell, George Mason, and a few other men of kindred feeling; and he brings to our own times the artistic flavour that made the productions of this group of painters so distinctive and delightful. Yet he is not a copyist of the methods and manner of the school. His sympathy with them is beyond question, but it does not descend into imitation for imitation's sake, and it is emphatically free from mechanical repetition of second-hand ideas. Obviously his association with the men among whom Fred. Walker ranked as leader and chief has come about solely because he found their view of art to be one that agreed completely with his personal belief, and because their way dealing with Nature's facts impressed him as correct.

By heredity and early training he belongs to quite another school. His father, Norman Macbeth was a member of the Royal Scottish Academy and a portrait-painter of note, and the son, who was born at Edinburgh in 1848, might fairly have been expected to follow the traditions of Scottish art with which he must have been familiar enough in his boyhood. Indeed, the whole of his artistic education was obtained in his native place, for, when he decided, at the age of eighteen, that the painter's profession was the one in which his imaginative sense, and his very evident love of construction, were most likely to give good results, he became a student in the Scottish Academy Schools. Before he began his regular training he had shown plainly that he had capacities which only needed shaping and control; and it is, therefore, not surprising that his school career should have been distinguished, and marked by many successes among others he was awarded the Stewart Prize for imaginative composition.

His student life ended in 1870, when he migrated from Edinburgh to London and established himself in a studio of his own. He was at once engaged as one of the staff of brilliant draughtsmen who were building up the reputation of The Graphic as a periodical with rare claims upon the attention of all art lovers; and for some while he continued to contribute a very large amount of work to its pages. But at the same time he did not neglect any chances of advancement in other branches of practice. His first appearance in a London exhibition had been made in 1869, when he sent from Edinburgh a water-colour to the Dudley Gallery, and soon after his arrival in London he was able to give further proofs of his skill in this medium which were convincing enough to secure his election as an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours.

In 1874 he exhibited his first picture, 'Sunlight and Shadow,' at the Academy, where he has been represented since by an almost unbroken succession of works. He is one of the few artists who can say that he has never had a picture rejected in his life.

It was in the following year that he began the series of pastorals by which his sympathy with the romanticists of the sixties has been most definitely asserted. In his choice of his first subjects he was influenced by an article that appeared in The Times, on the field labourers of Lincolnshire. There was in this article so much suggestion that good material for pictures was available in the out-of-the-way parts of the Fen country that he thought it well worth his while to go and study the local manners and customs on the spot. The most immediate results were seen at the Academy in 1875 and 1876, when he exhibited his ‘Lincolnshire Gang' and 'The Potato Harvest,' two great compositions, each nine feet long, that were in every sense remarkable as the works of a young painter; but these were only the first fruits of a special course of study which has remained a permanent influence in his life.

It has inspired him in the production of such notable pictures as the 'Cambridgeshire Ferry,' Coming from St. Ives,' The Fen Flood,' Sodden Fen,' 'The Coming Storm, The Fen Farm, The Ferry Inn, bought by the Chantrey Fund Trustees, The Lynn Ferry, His Last Copper,' and many others that he has painted during the last five-and-twenty years. The Fen subjects have, indeed, recurred at very frequent intervals, and though his record is full of digressions into other classes of material, he has never kept away long from his first love.

One of these digressions was made about 1880, when he paid a visit to Brittany and produced his ‘Sardine-fishing’, ‘Landing Sardines,’ and two or three other canvases of similar intention; and another was made in 1883, when The Sacrifice' appeared, a picture of a girl selling her long hair to a last-century wig-maker. Four years later he decided, at the suggestion of Mr. J. W. North, to settle in Somersetshire, and to occupy himself with another type of rustic material. During the ten years that this stay in Somersetshire lasted he painted mostly the subjects that he found ready to haud, and to this period belong his ‘Diana,’ ‘The Gipsy's Sunday,’ ‘Cider-making’, ‘Hunting with the West Somerset,’ ‘Hunting in a Fog,’ ‘Marauders of the Moor,’ and ‘The End of a Good Day,’ as well as a number of water-colour drawings; but he reverted several times to the Fens, and exhibited more than one picture in his earlier manner.

Since 1897, when he returned to London to live, he has been prevented by illness from completing many large undertakings, but in at least one work, his dainty ‘Sparklets,’ he has shown an inclination to launch out into new directions and to attempt forms of expression quite out of his accustomed vein. At present almost anything is possible from him; he has never made the mistake of formulating his convictions, and he has remained as receptive and as responsive to impressions as he was when he first attached himself to Fred. Walker and his school.

In another way this early association has very strongly affected his career as an artist, for it led to his enrolling himself among the few men who can translate a picture into black and white with intelligence and discretion. He had become an etcher in 1878, chiefly in response to the suggestion of his friends, Edwin Edwards and Charles Keene; but at the outset the craft was to him little more than an occasional pastime. When, however, Walker, Mason, and Pinwell died, he decided to undertake the reproduction of some of their most important works as a kind of expression of the affection that he had for them and their art. So he etched Walker's ‘Bathers’ and ‘The Plough,’ Pinwell's ‘Elixir of Love,’ and Mason's ‘Pastoral Symphony’; and his success in handling these pictures brought him commissions for other plates of the same character.

He has done important etchings of Titian's ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ and’ Garden of Love’; Velasquez's ‘Tapestry Weavers, Alonzo Cano,’ and ‘Surrender of Breda’: ‘The Old Garden’ and ‘Christmas Eve,’ by Sir John Millais; and he has reproduced admirably very many of his own paintings. But his success as an etcher is only an incident in his busy life; his reputation has been made chiefly by his pictures, and he takes his place among modern artists by virtue of his rare understanding of what is best in the painter's craft. His merit has been recognised both at home and abroad; he is an Associate of the Royal Academy, a Corresponding Member of the Institute of France, and a Member of the San Fernando Academy, which last honour was bestowed upon him when he visited Spain in 1886.

The phase of Mr. Macbeth's art that is illustrated in his etching, ‘A Lullaby,’ is one that is to many people comparatively unfamiliar. Various as he is, and fond of seeking out new forms in which to express his imaginings, he has yet made himself best known to the majority of art lovers by his consistent study of open-air life. Mr. Macbeth is too much in sympathy with the rural atmosphere to make mistakes about the character of his subjects, or to miss the essentials that the painter of pure nature must seek after devotedly. It is interesting, therefore, to see the manner in which his æsthetic principles have guided him in his treatment of such a motive as is dealt with in ‘A Lullaby.’ There is to be noted in this etching the same love of selection that marks all the work of his life, the same desire to insist upon the large sentiment of human existence rather than its small trivialities, the same spirit of wholesome vitality. The mother who is rocking her child to sleep, peasant woman though she may be, is a personification, a type of a great class, not a mere individual cottager who was persuaded to pose for her portrait. She typifies life that is clean and unspoiled by the sordid struggle after things not worth possessing: she represents the motherhood of nature and the vital principle that governs all creation, and her simplicity and unconsciousness fit her well."


Irish Times - Thursday 03 November 1910

“Robert Walker Macbeth, R.A., R.S.A., the second son of Norman Macbeth, R.S.A., the portrait painter, was born in Glasgow on 30th September, 1848. He was educated at Edinburgh and at Friedrichsdorf, in Germany, and received his art training at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools. He soon developed considerable power as an etcher and genre painter. In 1871 he went to London, where for a time he worked upon the Graphic staff. He became an Associate of the Royal Water Colour Society in 1874, and his works were frequently seen at the Royal Academy and other exhibitions.

Mr. Macbeth was an original member of the Painter-Etcher Society, and a corresponding member of the Institute of France. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1883. Macbeth was a sound draughtsman, and possessed a fine sense of colour. Devoted to his art, he laboured at it until he was stricken down with illness. One characteristic touch in a bald outline of his life, apparently supplied by his own hand to a standard book of reference, reveals alike his industry and his devotion to that art which was his life-work. Under the head ‘Recreation,’ he writes- ‘Sleeping, when too dark to work’. Macbeth married, in 1877, Lydia, eldest daughter of General Bates, of the Bombay Native Cavalry."

The West Somerset Free Press

“Robert Walker Macbeth, the second son of Norman Macbeth, was born in Glasgow on September 30th, 1848, and was educated in Edinburgh and at Friedrichdorf, in Germany. In the important matter of his art training Edinburgh would seem to have been his Alma Mater. Having won the Stuart prize for imaginative composition in Edinburgh, he moved to London in 1871, and only three years later he had a picture accepted for the Royal Academy. It is said that from that time he never had a work returned by the Council of the Royal Academy. In 1890 his picture ‘The Cast Shoe’ was bought by the Chantrey Trustees for £630. As a reproductive etcher he was quite as well if not better known than as a painter. His recreation he described as ‘sleeping when too dark to work.’

The Daily Telegraph, referring to Mr. Macbeth's associations with the West-country and his later career, says: On leaving London Mr. Macbeth set up his household gods at Washford, near Dunster Castle, in Somersetshire, and his new environment was bound to tell on his sensitive artistic temperament. Thus the titles of the pictures, ‘In the Cider Orchard,’ ‘Lynn Ferry,’ 'The Schoolmaster's Garden,' 'On the Way to Market,' and 'The Floods are out,' sufficiently describe a phase of his art which was apparent in the early nineties. More strenuous in their grip of things were the pictures ‘The Coming Storm' and 'Exmoor Gipsies,' which preceded the two canvases 'Unenvied, ‘Unmolested,' and 'Dunster Castle.'

Of Mr. Macbeth's later works little need be added. With a fine sense of line and an agreeable instinct for colour, Mr. Macbeth might have rested on his laurels as a painter of the Fen country. But his subtle appreciation of tone (a quality known in the studios as a sense of values) made him, as we have seen, one of the most accomplished etchers of modern times. It was this passion for black and white which made him so frequently neglect original work for the sake of immortalising the canvases of other masters. Thus Mr. Macbeth reproduced not only Titian, Romney, Burne-Jones, and Orchardson, but the portrait-painter Ouless and the landscape-painter, MacWhirter.

Of Mr Macbeth's portraits in oil 'My Daughter Phyllis,' 'Mrs. W. Oliver' (1901),' Mrs. C. W. Pilcher' (1903), and the 'sketches' of 'Philip H. Calderon' and 'Alfred Gilbert' (1897) are all fair examples. Perhaps one of the artist's most popular efforts in recent years was the picture called 'Naval Manoeuvres,' in which he depicts Mars in the lap of Venus, or, more accurately speaking, a young naval officer holding a skein of wool for a girl in the stern of a ship in a harbour.

Mr. Robert Macbeth, who married in 1887 Lydia, daughter of General Bates (a lady of extraordinary personal charms), was a member of the Royal Water-Colour Society and correspondent of the Institute of France. Elected a full Academician in 1902, this most indefatigable of artists deposited his diploma work, 'The Lass that a Sailor loves,' just two years later.”

The Daily Telegraph

“Robert Walker Macbeth, the second son of Norman Macbeth, was born in Glasgow, on Sept. 30, 1848, and was educated in Edinburgh and at Friedrichdorf, in Germany. In the important matter of his art training Edinburgh would seem to have been his Alma Mater, for the boy entered the Royal Scottish Academy Schools (brought so prominently into notice by Robert Scott Sander), and remained there, or in touch with the Trustees Academy, until he set his face in the direction of London.

This occurred in the year 1871, when the student, packing his valise, found temporary 'diggings' in Fitzroy-street, Fitzroy-square. It was from this stronghold of the aspiring artist that young Macbeth not only joined the staff of the Graphic, but first ventured on tackling the Royal Academy, which had then newly moved its quarters from Trafalgar square to its present position in Piccadilly. 'Springtime in the Outskirts of London' was Mr. Macbeth's first exhibit on the walls of Burlington House, but it proved striking enough to gain him a circle of admirers, who required no peculiar foresight in predicting that the young Glasgow man would 'go far.'

For the student, who was then no more than twenty years of age, had such a sense of atmosphere and style that it is small wonder that the critics singled him out from the mass of Royal Academy exhibitors. It is not maintained, of course, that the early pictures, ‘Sunshine and Shade,' seen in 1873, or the succeeding canvas, ‘Phillis on the new-made hay,' showed all Mr. Macbeth's later qualities of handling. But it is certainly true that the year 1876 saw the painter recognised as a new force; as an artist, that is to say, who, seeing with the poet's vision, had that restraining sense of style which made him so devout a disciple of Walker and Mason.”

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