The Patons of Dunfermline

Posted on 26 June 2020

In the second of our guest blogs the inimitable Dr Tom Normand HRSA recalls a famous family of artists from his home town of Dunfermline


Arriving in Edinburgh at Waverley Station. And, set on a visit to the RSA. The most direct route is up the slope to the Waverley Bridge. A right turn will bring you to the gate of East Princes Street Gardens, and here the topmost path creates a long vista to the side elevation of William Henry Playfair’s academy building.


William Donaldson Clark (1816-73) [attributed], The Royal Scottish Academy from East Princes Street Gardens, albumen print from glass negative. RSA collections (The Thomas Keith album of Early Scottish Photography)


Stepping onto this pathway a journey of just a few metres will place you alongside Amelia Robinson Hill’s bronze statue Dr David Livingston, inaugurated in 1875 and paid for by public subscription. The missionary and explorer is depicted on a stone pedestal, befittingly on foot, with a bible in one hand and a stick in the other.  Behind him is a lion skin, and the animal’s head. Looking at this work you might admire the craft and skill of the artist, while recognising the conflicted credo of its subject.


Ham / CC BY-SA (

Should you walk a few more metres you will come to the soaring triumph of George Meikle Kemp’s Scott Monument. Besides Sir John Steell’s central statue of Sir Walter Scott, the décor on the monument depicts characters from his various book. Three of these sculptures are by Amelia Hill.

Walk on to the academy itself and you may discover there her portrait bust of Lady Emily Merelina Shand, from circa 1864. This is a cool and austere marble that exhibits some curious psychological insight: the tight lips and gimlet eyes of the sitter indicating a personality inclined to scrutinizing and analysing.


Amelia Robertson Hill (nee PATON) (1821-1904), Portrait bust of Lady Emily Merelina Shand (1840-1911), marble, about 1864-5. RSA collections (Gifted by Mrs Peel, the sister of the sitter, 1918)


Amelia Hill’s work is already familiar to readers of the RSA blog.  In his contribution of 31st May, Murdo Macdonald mentions the bust of David Octavius Hill, sited as a memorial stone in the Dean Cemetery and created by his wife, the sculptor Amelia Hill.  Earlier, in a blog of 20th May, D. O. Hill is celebrated through a fine exposition of his painting View from a Bridge in Perth. Hill, of course, was a pillar of the RSA in the 19th century, serving as an accomplished Secretary to the institution for some thirty-nine years. His likeness in the Dean Cemetery is a bold and even heroic depiction of this ebullient and industrious personality.

Amelia Hill was D. O. Hill’s second wife. They married in 1862, and Amelia was some eighteen years younger than her new husband. In fact, D. O. Hill died in 1870 while Amelia would live on till 1904. During this period she remained a working sculptor, exhibiting at the RSA until two years before her death, in her eighty-fourth year. She was then buried alongside her husband, and so under her sculpted memorial monument, in the Dean Cemetery.



Amelia Hill was, in truth, Amelia Robertson Paton and a scion of that esteemed artistic family the Patons of Dunfermline. Of the three Victorian artists who comprised this kinship she was the eldest. Born in 1820, nearly two years before her celebrated brother Sir Joseph Noel Paton, and eight years before her younger brother Waller Hugh Paton, who was born in 1828. Their father was the respected Joseph Neil Paton, who was recognised as a designer of linen patterns for Dunfermline’s, then booming, Damask linen industry. He was also something of a kenspeckle figure within Scotland’s cultural landscape for he was an eminent antiquarian, with a significant collection of antiques gleaned from Scotland’s history and historic houses.

The Patons themselves were all born, and resident, in the house where Joseph Neil displayed his collection; Wooers Alley Cottage. This house, to the north-west of the town, was set in an informal parkland and was something of a local beauty spot. Waller Hugh Paton would leave a record of this site in drawings and paintings of circa 1855. However, his first ever painting was The Antiques Room, Wooers Alley, by Firelight completed in 1848.  Interestingly, Patrick Geddes would mention the picturesque locale of Wooers Alley in his report to the Carnegie Trust of Dunfermline, submitted in 1904; a report detailing his plans for the redevelopment of the town’s streets and civic spaces. These were never adopted.


James Good Tunny (1820-87), Waller Hugh Paton and Joseph Noel Paton, albumen print. RSA collections


Joseph Neil Paton had spent a short time as an instructor at the Dunfermline Art Academy, and it is recorded that his son, Joseph Noel, had undergone some training therein. The Academy was actually a private art class run by some interested amateurs who worked in the linen mills. In the early nineteenth century these were quite common institutions organised for entertainment and self-improvement. However, all three of the more professionally inclined Paton siblings would eventually settle in Edinburgh where they would become engaged, at various levels, with that acme of artistic institutions the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture.


Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1901), Oberon and Titania – first study for The Quarrel, oil on canvas, 1846. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1850


Of the three Joseph Noel would become the most esteemed. Having spent time in London, where he became an intimate of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, he would create his most acclaimed works The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, 1847, and, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849. The first oil sketch for this latter painting, titled Oberon and Titania, is held in the RSA.  Alongside this, in the collection, there are various images of fairies and nymphs: that fashionable, if eccentric, subject for which Joseph Noel became famed. He was knighted in 1867, the same year he became the Queen’s Limner in Scotland.

Waller Hugh Paton specialised in landscape painting, becoming one of the first Scottish artists to sketch, in paint, en plein air. His landscapes are modest, but accomplished. They all exude a quality of light, actually a kind of glowing translucence, that is most probably generated from a reflecting gesso ground primed on the canvas. On your visit to the academy you may possibly see his diploma work, Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran, deposited in 1865.


Waller Hugh Paton RSA (1828-95), Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran, oil on canvas, 1865. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1865


Joseph Noel Paton would become elected as a full academician in 1850; Waller Hugh Paton in 1865; and Amelia Robertson Paton not at all.

Amelia had an illustrious career that spanned the years 1860 till 1902, and exhibited at the academy throughout this time.  Her public and private commissions were legion, ranging from memorial statues to portrait busts and commemorative medallions. She was an accomplished and successful sculptor of considerable merit. But, unlike her brothers, she could not be granted membership of the RSA. The academy was an institution controlled and shaped by professional artists. Within the cultural mores of the Victorian period it was deemed that a woman could not occupy a ‘professional’ position.


Amelia Robertson Hill (née Paton) by Peter Lothian, albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s, Given by the Art Fund, 1916.
Photographs Collection NPG Ax17272


Amelia Paton, at least in part, confounded this forced designation.  She was a prolific and successful sculptor.  For this reason, there appears to have been some debate, in the late 1860s, concerning the possibility of electing women as Associate Members of the RSA. However, this was never realised until 1938 when Josephine Haswell Miller was permitted this status.

One year later the sculptor Phyllis Bone would be elected ARSA, but whereas circumstances dictated that Josephine Miller was never granted full membership, Phyllis Bone would become RSA in 1944.  Perhaps some late atonement for the lapse regarding Amelia Paton.

The Patons, as a family of artists, were fashioned in the environs of nineteenth century Dunfermline; with its linen mills, art academy, medieval history, and antiquarian associations.  They have been honoured in their native town.  But, perhaps a little too modestly.   When I was a young boy, resident in a now demolished part of Bruce Street in the town (in fact, now a Tesco car park) I lived immediately across from a wynd named Wooers Alley.  The formal title of this passageway was surely a recollection of the Patons famed house and its landscape.  Moreover, there is a modern throughway to the east of the town named Paton Street; so designated in honour of the most acclaimed sibling, Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

In the City Chambers there hangs Joseph Noel’s epic Queen Margaret and King Malcolm Canmore, 1887, a somewhat pious reflection of the saintly Margaret educating the irreligious king in the efficacy of The Book.  Indeed, this is something of a foundation myth for Dunfermline’s role as Scotland’s medieval capital, the birthplace and last resting place of kings, and an important religious centre.


Jospeh Noel Paton RSA (1821-1901), Queen Margaret and King Malcolm Canmore, oil on canvas, 1887. Dunfermline City Chambers (on loan from the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust). Courtesy of Fife Council


Still, all three Patons are represented in the collection of the RSA.  And all three were involved, in different ways, in the business of the academy in the nineteenth century.  In which case, when you leave Playfair’s building, from its northern doors, you can look upwards on the slope of Hanover Street.  Beyond that you might sense the Firth of Forth, with, further beyond, the hills on which are settled the town of Dunfermline. With this in mind, you might reflect upon the relative journeys of these talented artists.  Archetypes of the Victorian art world, and following career paths fully determined by the tastes and mores of their time.