The Maclaine Watters Medal : A new Acquisition

Posted on 31 July 2020

Following last week’s glimpse behind the scenes of our enquiry service, RSA Collections Team member Robin Rodger shares news of one of our most recent acquisitions including new research on the man whose medal bears his name, and tells the amazing story of Willy Cuthbertson the only person to have won the Royal Scottish Academy’s Maclaine Watters Medal more than once.



Shortly before the current lockdown took effect, a small parcel was received at the offices of the RSA Collections. It had been carefully wrapped, and its arrival had been forewarned.

It had been sent by five siblings; Susie Bolton Nash, Liz Bolton, Katie Armitage, Johnny Bolton and Sara Tyler. Its arrival was the outcome of what had started a few months earlier, in the Spring of 2019, as a routine enquiry seeking information on the family’s great-uncle William Alexander Cuthbertson (1882-1966) and his maternal grandmother Elizabeth T Ross.

Mr Cuthbertson, known to his family and friends as Willy, had been a student at the Royal Scottish Academy’s Life School in the early 20th Century, whilst his grandmother had been an exhibitor at the RSA Annual Exhibition in 1878. One of Mrs Ross’ daughters, Eleanor, was a portrait miniaturist and she had works included in the RSA Annual Exhibitions between 1880 and 1902.

But back to the parcel. It contained a single bronze disc, measuring 80mm wide by 8mm in depth. But this was no ordinary bronze disc; this was an impression of the Maclaine Watters Medal, one of the top student Awards made by the Royal Scottish Academy.

The medal was presented and endowed by Captain James Maclaine Watters, of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Edinburgh Artillery Militia, to the Royal Scottish academy in September 1878.

At the time of Captain Watters’ gift, the Academy was being led by the portrait painter, and fellow Glaswegian, Sir Daniel Macnee PRSA (1806-82).


Sir Daniel Macnee PRSA (1806-82), oil on canvas (1876), by James Archer RSA (1822-1904) [1992.435]



Watters (1846-79) was the 2nd child, and 2nd son of Andrew Watters, a Commission Merchant, and his wife Catherine McLannahan and was born at the family’s home at 110 Peel Terrace, in Glasgow’s Garnethill, on 28 December 1846. He was baptised simply as James Watters. It is not clear why or when he took on the middle name Maclaine. The couple subsequently had a further two sons and a daughter.

From an early age Watters displayed a great taste for art, and travelled extensively in pursuit of viewing great works at first hand. He commenced his travels aged just 17, travelling firstly to Italy, where he was most impressed by what he found in Rome. Subsequently and successively he travelled to Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Algiers, and finally the United States of America where he was by 1876.

This interest he put into practice, executing works in both oil and watercolour which he exhibited between 1872 and his death at the RSA Annual Exhibitions, and also in the Annual Exhibitions of the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts.

Captain Watters was also a champion of aspiring artists. His obituary stated; “Young artists found a warm friend in Captain Watters, one of his special aims in life being to encourage them in the prosecution of a profession in which he himself had found so much delight.

A tangible form of this encouragement was his endowment of the Maclaine Watters Medal just a few months before his death.


Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, oil on canvas laid on board,(1891) by George Ogilvy Reid RSA (1851-1928) [1992.442]


On 1 February 1872 “James Maclaine Watters, Gentleman,” was appointed a Supernumeracy Lieutenant in the Edinburgh Artillery Militia (formed 1854). In March 1874 he rose to Captain, and the following year the Regiment became The Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Edinburgh Artillery Militia with the approval of Queen Victoria, whose son the Duke of Edinburgh had been appointed its Colonel in Chief in June 1874.

Captain Watters had enjoyed a privileged life to this point. The family had lived comfortably at Belleville on Dalkeith Road Edinburgh, and it was there that the father, Andrew Watters, died on 23 May 1875 in his 85th year. Amongst his estate were shares in the Glasgow City Bank.

By 1877, Captain Watters had moved to New Hall House in Pennicuick, his residence at the time he presented the medal in September 1878. On 1 October 1878 the Glasgow City Bank collapsed with liabilities of £12.4million. Amongst the major stakeholders, who were now liable to meet these losses, were the heirs of Andrew Watters. The family held £3,500 worth of shares. In November 1878 New Hall was broken up and sold, and the Captain moved back to Glasgow. His health and spirit no doubt broken by the financial calamity which had befallen him, he died at his home at 235 Bath Street on 22 January 1879. He was just 32 years of age.



The Maclaine Watters Medal, bronze (1906), James Aitchison (c.1839-1921) after designs by Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1901) obverse [2020.0011]


The illustrated paper “The Graphic” in an issue of 5 April 1879 carried a line engraving of the obverse face of the medal accompanied by the following text; “THE MACLAINE WATTERS MEDAL OF THE ROYAL SCOTTISH ACADEMY This medal was presented to the Royal Scottish Academy in September last by the late Captain J. Maclaine Watters for annual competition amongst the students of painting (landscape and figure alike) in the Life School of that institution, the award to be made to the student whose work throughout the whole season should be considered by the Council to be most worthy of recognition, irrespective of whether he or she may have taken money prizes or not, the donor making a special suggestion that, in the formation of their judgment as to the respective merits of the pupils, colour should receive most consideration. The medal, which is of bronze, and is considered to be the best specimen of the medallist’s art yet produced in Scotland, was executed by Mr. James Aitchison, of Princes Street, Edinburgh, from the design” of Sir Noel Paton. The obverse (shown in our engraving) bears a figure representing the Good Genius of the Arts, with the legend Sic Itur ad Astra (Such is the way to immortality) whilst on the reverse is a laurel wreath, and the words, “The Maclaine Watters Medal: Royal Scottish Academy,” a space being left in the centre for the insertion of the name of the recipient, and the date of its award.

Paton, the future brother-in-law of David Octavius Hill RSA (1802-70) had been commissioned over 25 years earlier to design the President’s gold Medal and chain, which is still worn by the President of the Academy on formal occasions. So admired was this design that it was cast in bronze for Academicians and Honorary Members, and in Silver, for full Academicians.


The Maclaine Watters Medal, bronze (1906), James Aitchison (c.1839-1921) after designs by Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1901) reverse [2020.0011]



Willy Cuthbertson was the eldest of the three children of William Cuthbertson and his wife Elizabeth Thomson Cuthbertson or Ross, and was born at the family home at 1 Malta Terrace, Edinburgh, in the afternoon of 18 July 1882. At the time of his birth, Willy’s father was a Stationer’s Traveller.

By the time of the 1891 Census, the family had moved to Dublin Street, Edinburgh, where the family was joined by a 19-year old General Servant called Jessie MacIntosh; Mr Cuthbertson now being a Wholesale Stationer Merchant and an employer. A decade later the family had moved again, to 113 Mayfield Road, Edinburgh, with a change of servant. The 1901 Census records Willy as an 18 year old Art Student (Painter).


William A Cuthbertson, Art Student, courtesy of Katie Armitage


He was studying at the Trustees’ Academy, the fore-runner of Edinburgh College of Art, and which had rooms in the Royal Institution Building on The Mound; the building which has been home to the RSA since 1911.

Willy was close to finishing his studies, and was to spend 1901 studying at l’Academie Julian in Paris. The following year, 1902, he was appointed Ship’s Artist aboard the research vessel S.Y. ‘Scotia’. Under command of Britain’s most experienced polar explorer William Speirs Bruce (1867-1921), the ‘Scotia’ embarked on 2 November 1902 under the banner of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea. The expedition’s main objective was to establish the Orcadas Weather Station on Lawrie Island; the first permanent weather station in the Antarctic, and which still operates to this day. Originally known as Omond House, Cuthbertson remained at this location during 1903-04 alongside the expedition’s taxidermist, Alastair Ross.


William A Cuthbertson painting a dead bird aboard the ‘Scotia’ (c.1902-04) courtesy of Katie Armitage


Sketches made by William A Cuthbertson during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04), courtesy of Susie Bolton Nash


William Smith, who was ship’s artist on Prince Albert 1 of Monaco’s 2nd expedition to Spitzbergen in 1899 on the ‘Princess Alice’  – from



On his return to Scotland in July 1904, Willy was determined to continue to pursue his studies as an artist.

The RSA Council Minutes for 7 December 1904 record; “An application for admission to the Life School was submitted from William Cuthbertson and after examination of the specimens of his work also submitted by him he was admitted under the usual process.

That “usual process” was to complete a further series of drawings of a plaster cast after the antique in the Life School, and submit those for the consideration and approval of the Council of the RSA. Although the Minutes do not appear to make any further reference to his having done so, the fact that he went on to win all the prizes which he did clearly indicates that he must have done so successfully.  

His various successes in the Life Class prize lists are recorded in the RSA Council Minutes which were then used to compile the Academy’s Annual Reports.

His prizes were as follows;


The Maclaine Watters Medal, bronze (1906), detail


1906 : Maclaine Watters Medal

PLUS Commendation for Drawing (the Life School met on 64 mornings and 61 evenings during 1906. In making the Awards, the RSA Council took pleasure “in confirming the opinion of the Visitors [ie the class tutors] in their Report regarding the earnestness and ability manifested by the students..”)

1907 : Chalmers-Jervise Prize for Best Life Drawing

PLUS Commended in the Stuart Prize competition

1908 : Maclaine Watters Medal

Mr Cuthbertson holds the unique status of being the only person ever awarded it on more than a single occasion, PLUS Chalmers Bursary (equal with J Howard Lyon – though Lyon received £18.00.00 to Mr Cuthbertson’s £10.00.00!) PLUS Commended in the Stuart Prize competition

1909 : Carnegie Travel Scholarship

The Carnegie Travelling Scholarship was first awarded in 1903 and was endowed by Sir Andrew and Lady Carnegie. The winners were paid in two instalments and were expected to send regular reports on their practise to the RSA Council, sometimes alongside examples of their work. These provide fascinating if intermittent insights into where they chose to travel and occasionally throw up interesting asides.

Although there are references in the Council Minutes to their having been received, the Academy does not appear to have retained the letters sent by Willy to the Academy during his Carnegie Scholarship travels. We do know however that by May 1910 (and until at least 4 June) he was in Valencia and intending shortly to leave there for Madrid. He was still in Spain at 5 August, the date of his last letter to the Academy.

The Ledger for the Carnegie Scholarships record three payments, each of £28.16/8d, made to Mr Cuthbertson on 21 December 1909, 30 May 1910, and 12 August 1910. The third payment appears to have been granted to show appreciation at the feedback provided by Willy to the Academy, and seems to have been paid principally to encourage him to visit Italy.


Newspaper cutting intimating the marriage of Willy and Grace, courtesy of Katie Armitage

There is no evidence that Willy did travel on to Italy, perhaps on account of his having probably met a young Londoner, Katie Grace Price (1892-1984) who was then resident in Spain. The couple subsequently married and spent the rest of their lives in England.




Lieutenant  William Cuthbertson in uniform, courtesy of Katie Armitage


Willy served with the Royal Navy during the First World War and following his demobilization in 1919 he purchased, from a Ministry of Defence disposal sale for around £250, the US-built and Canadian-assembled motor launch ‘ML 349’ which he had commanded during his active service. Willy also captained a minesweeper during the Second World War.”


ML 349 moored at Heybridge Basin, courtesy of Katie Armitage


Moored at Heybridge Basin in Essex, this became the Cuthbertson’s home until Willy’s death in 1966. The boat was crammed with his paintings, as Willy continued to paint but exhibited his work less frequently.

Willy’s 1906 Maclaine Waters Medal passed by descent to his youngest sister Dorothy (b.1890), thence to her daughter Elizabeth Stewart (1919-2007). In 2020 Elizabeth’s family made the generous decision to gift the medal to the Academy where it, and Willy’s amazing story, could be shared with a broader public.

For further information about the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04 and for examples of some of William Cuthbertson’s watercolour sketches made on that voyage see;



With thanks to Liz Bolton, Susie Bolton Nash, and Katie Armitage for permission to use information and images relating to W A Cuthbertson, which formed part of Liz’s essay “A Forgotten Life”, Birkbeck College, 2019.