My name is Sandy Macpherson, living in Edinburgh with my wife Catherine, we are the proud parents of three children and six grandchildren. James Giles is my great grandfather on my mother’s side.
I have not inherited any artistic skills - any drawing I have ever done was with ruler and set square - but I enjoy looking at pictures with a rather old-fashioned eye, in other words, I like to know what I am looking at!
I have always heard of James Giles from my mother and Maybee Herdman, both granddaughters of the artist. Maybee, in particular, worked tirelessly in persuading Aberdeen Art Gallery to promote Giles’s work, and the National Trust for Scotland to display his work on Aberdeenshire castles in Haddo House.
Personally, I can appreciate his work on Scottish landscapes which detail the delicate shape of trees along with the blending of colours and textures of hills and sky.
A personal favourite is a portrait of his eldest son Peter. He is resplendent in the dress uniform of a cadet officer in the East India Company army, with a scarlet jacket, golden epaulettes and sash. He has inherited his father’s high forehead and rather prominent nose and his dark eyes gleam with a light reflecting that on his brass buttons. It is a portrait which sums up his father’s pride in his first-born about to sail for a new life overseas. Poor Peter, he lived in India for six years before dying of fever in Lahore.
Another favourite is a large leather-bound volume containing 32 watercolours of Highland scenery. In 1839 Giles was commissioned by the 2nd Duke of Sutherland to paint pictures of his land holdings, which were extensive. The Duke had inherited the title from his father who was one of the richest men in Britain. His lands stretched from the North Sea to the Atlantic covering a vast area of hill and moor.
In the period from the 4th of July to 3rd August 1839 Giles travelled far and wide, from Dunrobin to the island of Handa. The result was 32 watercolours, executed in all weathers. We have travelled through this part of Scotland and it is remarkable how little it has changed - it is still a vast empty landscape.
In 1946 my grandmother, Mrs Ella Giles, was living in Edinburgh when she received a telephone call from an art dealer unknown to her. He asked if she knew of an artist called James Giles, to which she replied that he was her father-in-law. The dealer explained that he had a volume of Giles’s pictures and was phoning all the Giles names in the telephone directory to see who would be interested in buying it.
My grandmother was first on the list and, after viewing the volume, bought it for £50 and it has been in the family ever since. How the dealer acquired the volume is unknown. One theory is that in 1945 Carbisdale Castle, built by the 3rd Duke of Sutherland after an acrimonious family dispute, was sold and the contents dispersed. The volume may have been sold and found its way to Edinburgh two years later.
A personal side note, Carbisdale, a magnificent building, later became a Youth Hostel. In 1958 I stayed the night there for the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence!
James Giles had a long and interesting life, working hard in his early youth to support his deserted mother and young sister, to achieving recognition and success in later years.
His early stay in Italy must have opened his eyes to the sunshine and colour which he later incorporated into pictures of his homeland. He had friends in high places: his friendship with Lord Aberdeen lead to his portfolio of pictures of Balmoral, which persuaded Queen Victoria to purchase the estate before viewing it.
In all, a remarkable man, one who I am proud to have as an ancestor.
Images: courtesy of Sandy Macpherson