Elected ARSA: 12 November 1851

Elected RSA: 10 February 1854

Sir William Fettes Douglas was born in Edinburgh in 1822, and received his early education in the Southern Academy, and afterwards at the High School. His father, Mr. James Douglas, Accountant of the Commercial Bank, was himself an amateur artist of some ability, and it was in accordance with his wish that his son entered the service of the Bank—a service in which he continued for ten years.


His tastes and inclinations were, however, so strongly artistic, that he was ultimately allowed to abandon commercial pursuits and to adopt art as a profession. While prosecuting his art studies he also attended in the University of Edinburgh. At the age of twenty-one he began to exhibit in the Royal Scottish Academy works which, even at this early period of his art career, attracted considerable attention. So rapidly did he attain distinction that in 1851 he was elected Associate, and in 1854 an Academician. In 1857 he for the first time visited Italy, which had so many attractions for him that he frequently returned to it in later years.


He was elected secretary of the Academy in 1869, but held that office for a short time only. In 1877 he was appointed Curator of the National Gallery, a position for which his extensive and accurate knowledge of art eminently qualified him, and he continued to discharge the duties of that office with great acceptance till 1882, when, on the death of Sir Daniel Macnee, he was elected to the Presidentship of the Royal Scottish Academy. In the same year he received from Her Majesty the honour of Knighthood, and two years later the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D.


During the most active part of his artistic life, he of the Academy upwards of one hundred and twenty figure pictures, many of them contributed to the exhibition remarkable for originality and variety of subject, excellence of composition and colour, and minuteness of finish and detail. At the beginning of the volunteer movement in 1859 he took a leading part in raising the Artists’ Company of the City of Edinburgh Artillery Volunteers. In later years, when from failing health he was no longer able to execute important works in oil, he began painting in water colours, and at once attained to very high excellence in this branch of art, many of the small landscape studies thus produced being among the most of all his beautiful and delicate works.


Sir Wiliam Fettes Douglas was not only an excellent scholar and possessed of many accomplishments, but he was also well versed in all matters pertaining to art and antiquities, and his opinion on these and other kindred subjects was much sought after and  highly valued. For a number of years past, on account of the state of his heath, Sir William went  very little into society, but in his earlier days his hospitable disposition drew around him many warm and attached friends by whom his memory is still fondly cherished.


In accordance with the usual custom when the Chair of the President became vacant, the Secretary wrote to Sir Henry F. Ponsonby intimating the vacancy, and requesting that it be communicated to Her Majesty. To which the following gracious reply was received:-


OSBORNE, July 27, 1891.


‘Sir,—Having laid your letter before the Queen, I am com- manded by Her Majesty to express her regret at the announcement made by you of the death of Sir William Douglas,—'I have the be honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant ,


RSA Obituary by Henry Ponsonby, transcribed from 1891 RSA Annual Report

Further Images

Sir William Fettes Douglas PPRSA (1822-91), The Messenger of Evil Tidings

oil on canvas, by 1857 87.6 x 112.3cm

RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1861. 1999.057