Wingate RSA, Sir James Lawton (1846-1924)

Wingate RSA, Sir James Lawton (1846-1924)
Wingate RSA, Sir James Lawton (1846-1924)

Sir James Lawton Wingate RSA was a distinguished Scottish painter, predominantly known for his expressive landscape paintings. Born in Glasgow, he was venerated by his contemporaries and ultimately elected as the President of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA).

The natural world, with its infinite allure, has enchanted artists for centuries. Challenging to capture accurately, its ever-shifting moods have brought joy and exasperation in equal measure. John Ruskin (1819-1900), the punctilious Victorian art writer, proclaimed that “nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty” and “all great art is the expression of man's delight in God's work.” He advocated studying its nuances first-hand and it was this mantra that inspired Wingate’s impressionable mind.

Both John Ruskin and also the musings of the Pre-Raphaelites were influential in his early artistic ambitions. As such, his formative works exhibit an exacting, rather rigid, appearance while he sought to capture every swaying branch and craggy rock. His admiration for Ruskin was also probably the catalyst for his first overseas study trip - a sojourn to Italy in 1867 where he produced around 150 watercolours.

Upon his return, keen to develop his art further, Wingate enrolled at the RSA where he encountered various artists of note. Still a relatively young man, one can imagine him clutching his sketchbook among peers while discussing Italianate vistas and Claudian visions. 

However, fortunately perhaps, his esteemed colleagues were not as buoyed by his Italian studies and offered him advice that would change his fortunes immeasurably. In the autumn of 1873, Hugh Cameron RSA RSW (1835-1918) criticised Wingate’s style, stating “I feel the work to be wrong and art is not an affair of argument, it is an affair of feeling”. Cameron’s own works were looser and less regulated. Following this critique, Wingate immediately changed his approach: "I determined thenceforth to appeal directly to feeling as my guide in art, and only from that date can I see any progress". 

Emboldened by this new zest for freedom, his career flourished and it’s his looser, more feeling, works that continue to delight us today. In ‘A Summer’s Evening’ from 1888, which is held at the National Gallery of Scotland, an enriching sunset provides the backdrop to a lazy evening conversation. Silhouetted trees are described in dabs and gestures.

James Lawton Wingate

Indeed, twilight was his raison d'etre, as the golden hour diminishes into a restful haze of tinted umber. Here, in this lyrical work from around 1890, three fieldhands load a cart with hay, dragged from atop a stack. The figures are rendered with little more than a few marks, while the trees are mere suggestions.

James Lawton Wingate

From 1880 onwards, Wingate was a regular exhibitor at the RSA, becoming its President in 1919. A year later, he was knighted, the crowning glory for an impressive career. His works are held in numerous public collections including at National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture.


Glasgow Fine Art Institute, Royal Scottish Academy.

Public Collections

National Galleries of Scotland, Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, City Art Centre, Gracefield Arts Centre, Kirkcaldy Galleries, McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Perth Art Gallery, Rozelle House Galleries, The Fleming Collection, The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum, University of Edinburgh, Glasgow Museum, John Muir House, Low Parks Museum, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, The Dick Institute, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Ullapool High School.



Born in Kelvinhaugh, Glasgow, Scotland.

C. 1858-1863

Worked as a clerk for his uncle while undertaking drawing lessons at the Glasgow School of Art.


Debuted at the Glasgow Fine Art Institute.


Debuted at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) with ‘Strath Echaig’.


Undertook a tour of Italy.


Lived in Hamilton.


Lived in Edinburgh.
Studied at the antique school of the Board of Manufactures.


Studied at the RSA where he met several artists of note including William McTaggart, George Paul Chalmers, and Hugh Cameron.
Met the artist RSA RSW Hugh Cameron (1835-1918). 


Lived in the rural area of Muthill.


Lived in Edinburgh.
Elected an Associate of the RSA.


Lived in Muthill.


Elected a member of the RSA.


Lived in North Colinton.


Lived in Edinburgh.


Elected as President of the RSA.




Resigned as President of the RSA.




Reviewed in The Art Journal, 1896

“The attraction London possesses for Scots, especially talented ones, has often called forth remark. 'Tis said that whenever a Scotsman's work, be it book or picture, is received with favour in the Southern capital, he takes the earliest opportunity of following it there, and the statement, though exaggerated, contains sufficient truth to give it point. And the inducements, in art at least, are obvious; not only is there a larger public to appeal to, but it seems impossible to achieve even a British reputation unless one exhibits in the London galleries. As for a European one, that must be made in Paris. Even residence at a distance from these centres delays recognition of talent, though, happily, it may not finally prevent it. For these and other reasons, which need not be alluded to, migration to London has set in, and Scotland has thus been deprived of many talented artists. The new environment appears to have stimulated figure painters of the stamp of Orchardson and Pettie, particularly in the direction of finer and more accomplished draughtsmanship, but one is not quite sure of its influence for good on the landscape men. Whatever the cause, although far less widely known and popularly esteemed than some of those who have settled in London, the most poetic Scottish landscapists have, for the most part, lived and painted at home. It is to consideration of the art of one of the most gifted of these that this paper is devoted.

Fifty years ago James Lawton Wingate was born in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, and in that city seven or eight years of his life, after leaving school, were spent in a merchant's office. His spare hours, however, were employed in drawing and painting, and at the age of twenty, Mr.Wingate was able to devote himself entirely to the art he loved. In 1864 he exhibited his first picture in the Glasgow Institute, and three years later, he spent six months in Italy. It was during this Italian sojourn that Wingate commenced to paint out-of-doors, his work previously having been executed principally in watercolour from elaborate pencil drawings made on the spot. All this time he had had little or no technical instruction, but about 1872 he suddenly bethought himself that it would be wise to learn his trade, and, removing to Edinburgh, he became a student in the antique school conducted by the Board of Manufactures. When a man has reached the age Mr. Wingate had (he was then twenty-six) it cannot be expected that he will ever gain the surety and facility of draughtsmanship attainable in youth; but the Royal Scottish Academy's life class to which he was admitted in the following year was a stimulating influence then, Chalmers and McTaggart being visitors, and Wingate gained much from it.

The evolution of Mr. Wingate's style has been constant and consistent, one petal has unfolded after another, and at present the flower is in full bloom. At first the growth was exceeding slow, for several years there was little apparent, one elaborate picture succeeding another; the artistic nature of the man was still encased within a chrysalis of excessive conscientiousness. Nearly all great painters have been actuated in the beginning of their careers by this profound respect for the material of nature, and this they never lose, although in the course of years they enter into its spirit more and more and express the emotion produced rather than the material facts which create it. The desultory nature of Mr. Wingate's training has, to a certain extent, crippled his power of expression, and, in consequence, detracts from the artistic beauty of his pictures, while it seems to render work on a large scale difficult to him. It may be true that training alone never yet made an artist, but it is equally certain that, given valid talent, proper apprenticeship to an art gives the power necessary to state the result of insight and feeling in adequate and satisfactory terms. But if fine painting is a fine thing, art is much more than technique: it is an affair of seeing and feeling too. As well say that life is a matter of manners alone, as that art is merely manual dexterity.

If, in figure work, it is hard to forgive feeble and faulty drawing, one is less exacting in landscape, and Wingate's, although lacking profound knowledge and constructive power, has yet the charm of suggestion. What his drawing really misses is style. He seems to observe the form of things carefully, and to be quite alive to the charm of characterisation; but his rendering in the matter of line is without distinction. His sense of composition, too, is not very strong. Hung beside J. Lawton Wingate, R.S.A.. In the possession of Mr. McLeod, Glasgow, a good Corot, the finest thing Wingate has done might seem wanting in beauty of arrangement and grace of line; it would not be perfectly pictorial, for the severe yet passionate melody of line and mass, which mark the masters of design, is not his. It is for lack of these very two qualities that Mr. Wingate's work suffers so much in reproduction. When a picture depends principally for composition, on its effect on masterly drawing and grand contrast and relation of mass and rhythmic play of line, it loses less in being reduced to black and white than one whose chief charm resides in colour and handling. The delicate play of brushwork, the subtle modulation of colour the qualities in painting kindred to turns of expression and inflection in speech-withdrawn, the emotional value of a picture of this kind is often destroyed. So Wingate can only be fairly judged from the pictures themselves, and before them one is not so much inclined to criticise as to enjoy.

Mr. Wingate often attains, in his smaller and more spontaneous canvases, a quality of surface and a suggestiveness of handling of peculiar charm, but not their least merit, in an age possessed by a thirst for facts, is the art motive underlying all. His colour possesses the peculiar fascination which comes of pervading grey through which brilliant hues glow subdued, yet not extinguished. This is the charm of ambient atmosphere, and in Art implies the presence of values, which in Wingate's case would seem to be the result of unconscious sensitiveness to the subtle gradation of nature, rather than to the precise and almost scientific analysis, which mark it in work of the Bastien-Lepage type. But there is more than bare values in Wingate's pictures, they have also the romantic element of chiaroscuro. These are qualities which are very difficult to write about, for they are of the very essence of pictorial conception, and when an idea is perfectly fitted to the chosen medium of expression, it is all but impossible to convert it into another form without losing its fragrance and beauty.

When one turns from consideration of Mr. Wingate's means of expression to the matter expressed, there is little but praise to bestow. At first sight it appears as if his art were peculiarly fitted to find ready acceptance with the public. It demands little artistic knowledge for its understanding, while the sentiments and subjects it deals with suggest common ground for all. On further consideration, however, one finds that his feeling for nature is too subtle and deep to be widely appreciated. The popular painter is he who paints the pretty and the obvious, and sees nature as the vulgar do; not he who, through greater appreciation of beauty and more refined and penetrating perception, sees into the life of things. But if Wingate's art cannot be really popular, these elements ensure it a wider audience than art merit alone could. It charms the artist, and delights the lover of nature. In much Scottish landscape-painting topographical interest counts for a great deal, but his depends solely on emotional and aesthetic charm, on beauty of sentiment and expression. In an attitude like this the subject is of far less importance than the conditions under which it is seen, and Mr. Wingate has the happy knack of seizing the fortunate moment, when the forces of nature combine to produce a beautiful and memorable effect. To few men has a more beautiful vision of the world been given than that revealed in his pictures. His landscapes bring us close in touch with that poetry of earth, which Keats assures us is never dead, and if one loves nature well they must assuredly awaken a responsive thrill. They are reminiscent of all times and all seasons, but most of hours when winds are soft and nature smiles. They breathe of country lanes and sunlit fields, of dewy pastures and twilight valleys, of quivering leaves, and hay or hawthorn-scented breezes. To the majority of men, consigned by fate to toil in stony cities, communion with nature, and the content and joy it brings, are seldom granted, but if they may not often meet her face to face, pictures such as these, drowned in her spirit, bring her very near.

Mr. Wingate's art reaches its culmination in his sunset pictures. In a homelier but not less real sense than Turner, Corot, and Whistler, he is a chosen priest at the shrine of dying day. It is not the evening which flames, and burns, and glows on Turner's magnificent canvases, nor the lovely grace, the voiceless yet perfect melody of the day which dies beyond the stream, behind the trees, in the enchanted land where Corot dreamt, nor that ominous and pregnant hour, when twilight is conquered by the night, which haunts one at memory of Whistler's nocturnes, that has inspired Wingate, but the glamour of gloaming falling on pasture, copse, or hillside, and hushing all things to sleep in our own northern land. ‘Tis the midtime between the glory and the dark that he loves; the hour hallowed to Scottish poetry by Kilmeny's return. Here he touches many a chord, the clear solemn glow of winter twilights, the wan flush that closes days which herald’ ‘The wa gaun o' Winter,’ the serene calm of golden sunsets, or the rich quiet of afterglows which follow the splendour of autumn sun-downs. Sometimes the colour in his daylight pictures is slightly dusty, as if it had come with difficulty, and in repeated paintings lost its first freshness, but in those twilights it is almost always beautiful, and never more so than when he paints a harmony in grey and gold with bronzen notes. 

The same appropriateness, a fitness born of a certain habit of thought, which distinguishes the introduction of incident into the landscape of these masters, is present in that of Wingate. Beneath the painted pageantry of Turner's skies The Fighting Téméraire is tugged to her last berth, Ulysses derides Polyphemus, or Leander swims to his doom: Corot peoples his fairy landscape with sprite and nymph; under the transfiguring influence of darkness the figures in Whistler's night pieces become dim, shadowy, phantom-like; and in Wingate's pastorals we have the plough turning on the headrig, reapers in the harvest fields, or the cattle coming home. By comparing Wingate with these great masters one does not imply that he is their equal, but to have thought of them together is in every way to his credit, and sufficient proof of his worth. Sight of a poor landscape does not suggest Corot, nor does reading ‘The Epic of Hades’ recall ‘Paradise Lost.’ It is difference of kind, not of degree, which forms the insuperable barrier between good art and bad. Contrasting the dominant characteristic of Wingate's feeling for nature with that of some of his highest as well as the most fellow-countrymen, one might describe Thomson's as the mingling of historic association with natural beauty. McTaggart's as lyric rapture and elemental force, Walton's as intense appreciation of exuberant life, Roche's romance, Wintour's as passion, and Wingate's as tenderness and reverie.

A brother Academician once remarked that Wingate was too easily satisfied in the matter of subject, and never painted the grand or the exceptional. It is true, but not as a reproach. The grand and elemental do not appeal to him; he does not delight in mountains: pathless woods do not charm him; he has never felt the fascination of the sea; but the beauty he distils from simple and everyday things is wonderful. As to the exceptional it seems to me that the useful function of art is not the creation of the fanciful and the far off, but the revelation of the meaning and beauty in the commonplace. The former may drug our senses for a while, but the latter once revealed is ours forever. Besides, while it is good to have ambitions and to cherish the highest ideals, in art it is far better to do a little thing well than attempt much and fail. The artists who have accomplished something and added to the world's stock of beauty have respected the possibilities of the material they worked with, and recognised the limitations of their gifts. Wingate in painting what he knows and loves best, has done so too: he has produced beauty, and beauty is the end of art. 

James L Caw.”

Stay In Touch
Subscribe to our Wednesday newsletter for the latest finds and 10% off your order.