Ross RSA, Robert Thorburn (1816-1876)

Ross RSA, Robert Thorburn (1816-1876)

Robert Thorburn Ross RSA was a distinguished Scottish painter of domestic genre scenes. His oeuvre is traditional in style and illustrates passing moments within humble cottages and farmhouses.

A family gathers to bid farewell to their young naval recruit, a young mother looks on while her daughter treasures a new book, and a boisterous son clambers up a garden wall to view the rolling hills beyond.

Ross trained under George Simson RSA (1791-1862) and at the Trustees' Academy under Sir William Allan RA (1782-1850). A popular figure, a Victorian critic referred to his “amiability and modesty of character” which “secured for him the kindly esteem of his brother artists”. His daughter, Christine Paterson Ross (1843-1906), and son, Joseph Thorburn Ross ARSA (1849-1903) also became painters.

The Art Journal produced a lengthy biography in 1871, which is reproduced in our directory.


Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Scottish Academy.

Public Collections

National Galleries Scotland, Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Darlington Library, Perth Art Gallery.



Born in Ballincollig, Ireland, to Robert Ross and Janet Ross (nee Smith), according to ancestry records. Other sources record his birthplace as Edinburgh, Scotland.


Trained under George Simson RSA (1791-1862).

Studied at the Trustees' Academy under Sir William Allan RA (1782-1850).

Worked for a time in Glasgow executing ‘crayon portraits’.


Debuted at the Royal Scottish Academy with ‘Shepherd’s Boy Reading’.


Married Ann Strachan Collie.


Lived in Berwick where his father was a ‘mastergunner’.


Married Margaret Scott.


Lived in Edinburgh.
Elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy.


Lived in Edinburgh with his wife and six children.


Elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy.


Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Tastes Differ; A Visit in the Country’.
Lived in Edinburgh with his wife and five children.
Reviewed in The Art Journal by critic James Dafforne as part of the series ‘British Artists: Their Style and Character’.

“Beyond the northernmost part of the United Kingdom the works of this artist are comparatively little known; for, unlike the majority of Scottish painters, he has, we believe, never exhibited either in London, or in the galleries of provincial towns south of the Tweed. Yet in Scotland his works are much sought after, and he holds a good position among the painters of genre subjects; helping to sustain the reputation of the school with which he is associated.

Robert Thorburn Ross, a native of Edinburgh, was born in 1816. At the age of fifteen he was articled to Mr. G. Simson, R.S.A., at that period considered the principal Art teacher in Edinburgh. While engaged in the studio of this painter, young Ross attended the schools of the Trustees' Academy, which has aided in the education of so many of the best Scottish artists of our day: here he studied for three years under the superintendence of Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Allan, R.A., R.S.A.

At the expiration of the term of apprenticeship, Mr. Ross settled in Glasgow as a portrait painter, remaining there some years as his headquarters, but frequenting other principal towns in the west of Scotland to practise his art. In 1842 he went to Berwick, on a visit to his father, who had served in the Royal Artillery, and had been appointed master-gunner of that famous Border town. Berwick proved such a favourable sketching ground for the artist, that he remained there ten years, and then returned to Edinburgh.

Prior to his leaving the former place he began to exhibit regularly in the galleries of the Scottish Academy, and has continued to do so ever since, sending each year three or four works on an average. His first picture appeared there in 1845; it was called ‘The Spinning-Wheel,’ and was very favourably noticed by several members of the Academy. Of his earliest works, one, ‘The Dead Robin,’ was engraved, and others found ready purchasers in the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, and among private individuals; as, for example, his ‘Pious Conversation’ - not a well-selected title, by-the-bye; his ‘Courtship,’ ‘The Mote in the Eye,’ ‘Blowing Hard’, a group of children playing with a toy boat, bought by Mr. Potts, of Manchester; ‘Cottage Children,’ purchased by Captain Mitchell Innes, of Ayton Castle, and engraved; ‘The Sleeping Child,’ ‘The Lesson,’ ‘Children and Dog’, bought by the Association.

In 1852 Mr. Ross was elected an Associate of the Scottish Academy. Of his works of the next few years may be mentioned ‘The Harried Nest’; ‘Hide and Seek,’ purchased by Mr. J. Graham, of Skelmorlie Castle, and photographed on a large scale by the Art Union of Glasgow for their subscribers; ‘The Thorn in the Foot,’ bought by Sir John Marjoribanks, of Lees, Berwick-shire; ‘Fishers' Shieling’; ‘The Dancing Lesson,’ the property of Mr. J. Scott, Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park; and ‘The Bible.’ Our recollection of ‘The Dancing-Lesson’ is, that it is characterised by appropriate expression and excellent colour.

The best picture exhibited by this artist in 1857 was the ‘Boathouse near Eyemouth.’ One of his works of the same year, ‘The Dame's School,’ was purchased, when on the easel, by the committee of the Glasgow Art Union, and was never publicly exhibited.

Among those sent to the Academy were, in 1858, ‘Spinning Wool,’ and ‘Innocence;’ in 1859, ‘The Broken Pitcher,’ bought by Mr. Wilson, of Glasgow; and ‘A Country Lassie,’ purchased by a brother artist, Mr. D. McNee, R.S.A. When painters buy works of each other, it is sure evidence of the estimate put on them.

‘The Foundling,’ exhibited in 1860, was bought by Mr. James Richardson, of Edinburgh; and ‘A Highland Interior,’ exhibited the following year, was painted for Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks. ‘Leaving Home,’ as we remarked at the time of its being exhibited, in 1862, was one of the best pictures Mr. Ross had produced up to that date; it was purchased and engraved by the Scottish Association. Next year he exhibited ‘Highland Pets,’ another commission from Sir Dudley C. Marjoribanks, which we have engraved; and ‘The Old Master-Gunner's Story of Waterloo,’ the gunner being no other than the painter's father.

The artist once told us a story with reference to this picture, which would scarcely be credited, except on such authority. We have already stated that the elder Mr. Ross filled the post of master-gunner at Berwick; and he is represented, in the composition, in his semi-official uniform, narrating to his grandson the story of the famous battle, and is directing the boy’s attention to a certain passage in a picture of the engagement, hanging over the mantelpiece of the room in which they are assembled. The old gentleman had been long in the service, was present through the whole of the Peninsular war, and also at Waterloo. After his death, his son applied to the owner of the picture for permission to have the head photographed, as a loving memorial, and was actually refused the request. Certainly, the churlish collector, whose name we do not know, or we might be inclined to give it, is a man utterly void of right feeling.

With several nice little bits of Scottish landscape, Mr. Ross exhibited, in 1864, ‘The Return,’ engraved on a preceding page, and purchased, when on the easel, by Mr. Robert Crossman, of Cheswick House, Northumberland. There is no novelty in the subject, but it is treated very skilfully and pleasantly. The sailor, who may have been a ‘ne'er-do-weel’ as a youngster, has grown into a stalwart man during his long absence at sea, so that even his mother, who throws her arms round his neck, scarcely recognises him; while the grandmother peers through her spectacles with a still more dubious look. The sister seems at once to accept him, and with a welcome smile; but his younger brother lifts his head from the porridge basin with an air of incredulity or of indifference; while the dog, as is the wont of the animal, sniffs round the legs of the stranger, uncertain as yet whether it is his duty to seize them, or to give their owner a hearty greeting. The group is put together with much ingenuity, and the feeling thrown into its component parts is appropriate and pointed.

‘Wha’s at the Window?’ another of our illustrations, is a humorous representation of cottage life ‘over the border.’ This picture was also bought, when on the easel, by Mr. Gibbons, of Liverpool, and was exhibited in Edinburgh, in 1865. Here, as in the preceding work, the artist has shown great skill, both in the arrangement of the figures, and in their masterly execution. A little bit of courtship, apparently, is going on at the window of the adjoining room, and the curiosity of the venerable grandmother is excited by hearing voices: hence her query of the little girl. The expression given to the old woman's face is capital, and her attitude, that of attempting to rise from the chair, as if she would judge for herself, is most truthful. Other pictures exhibited with it were, ‘The Cotter's Daughter,’ also purchased by Mr. Gibbons ; ‘Salmon-Fishing,’ &c. ‘The Fisher's Home,’ bought by Mr. Crossman, above mentioned, before it left the studio, and exhibited, in 1866, is one of those pleasant and cheerful scenes of home life, of which the artist has produced so many.

Among more recent pictures may be named ‘The Highland, Shepherd's Fireside’, purchased by the Scottish Association, and ‘The Goswick Salmon Fisher’; both exhibited in 1867; ‘The First Journey,’ and others, in 1868. The following year Mr. Ross was elected Member of the Scottish Academy, to whose exhibition his principal contribution was ‘Salmon Fishing on the Tweed, at Berwick’, another work that found a purchaser in the Scottish Association. Last year he exhibited his diploma picture, entitled ‘Asleep,’ a cottage-interior; and four subjects of fisher life, ‘Preparing Bait,’ ‘Baiting the Line,’ ‘Dyeing the Net,’ and the ‘Music Lesson’; and, in the present year, ‘Sunshine,’ bought by Mr. John Scott, of Edinburgh, and several fisher subjects, both in oils and water-colours. Mr. Ross' works in the latter medium are as popular as those in the former.

This artist has evidently studied Scottish life in the cottage, on the sea coast, and by the riverside: his pictures are all of this class of subject, which he renders with fidelity, and under the most attractive aspects. He is an excellent colourist, and shows true feeling for the picturesque, both in his figures and their surroundings, whether in or out of doors.”


Debuted at the Royal Society of British Artists with ‘A Lover’s Tiff’.
Lived in Edinburgh.




The Art Journal

“In the Art Journal of 1871 is a notice of the life and works of this artist, whose death occurred about the middle of the month of July last. Mr. Ross, a very popular painter of genre subjects - Scottish life in the cottage, on the seacoast, and by the riverside - was born in Edinburgh, in 1816, and studied under G. Simson, R.S.A., at that time considered the principal Art teacher in the city; he also attended the schools of the Trustees' Academy, where so many excellent artists of Scotland learned the rudiments, and something beyond the rudiments, of their art: there he studied for three years under the superintendence of Mr. (after Sir William) Allan, R.A., and R.S.A.

Mr. Ross first appeared as an exhibitor at the Scottish Academy in 1845, and constantly contributed to its annual exhibitions three or four works on an average, which generally passed from the gallery into the possession of some of the best local collectors; for example, his ‘Cottage Children’ was bought by Captain M. Innes, of Ayton Castle; ‘The Broken Pitcher’ by Mr. Wilson, of Glasgow; ‘The Thorn in the Foot’ by Sir John Marjoribanks; ‘Highland Pets,’ engraved in the Art Journal, by Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks; ‘Wha's at the Window?’ also engraved by us, by Mr. Gibbons, of Liverpool. Several of the deceased artist's pictures were purchased, as prizes, by the Glasgow Art Union and the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. His works in water colours were as much in request as his oil pictures. Mr. Ross was elected Associate of the Scottish Academy in 1852, and Member in 1869.”

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