James Cowie RSA 1886 -1956
Elected ARSA: 18 March 1936
Elected RSA: 10 February 1943
This Academy suffered a great and grievous loss when James Cowie, Secretary of the Academy from 1948 to 1953, died on 18th April 1956. A man of the highest integrity, intellectual distinction and artistic achievement, Cowie was born at Netherton of Delgaty near Cumines-town, Aberdeenshire, of farming stock in the year 1886.
He attended classes at Aberdeen University. Obtaining a teacher’s certificate, with distinction in drawing, he decided not to graduate, but to take up a post as Art Master in Fraserburgh Academy. In 1912 he resigned his position there and entered the Glasgow School of Art, where he studied painting under Maurice Grieffenhagen. He was one of a group who attracted attention both before the outbreak and after the conclusion of the First World War.
He was appointed Art Master in Bellshill Academy, Lanarkshire, where he remained for more than 20 years, and while teaching here found ample material for his own work among the young pupils who were under his charge. Indeed, the penetrating studies he made of them rank among the most important of his work.
He exhibited at the Glasgow Institute, the Royal Scottish Academy, and held several one-man shows. In1935hewasappointedprincipal teacher of painting in Aberdeen, in 1936 he was elected A.R.S.A. and in 1937 he was invited to take up the post of Warden at Hospitalfield, Arbroath. In both these posts he exerted great and beneficial influence
on his students. In 1943 he was elected R.S.A. and in 1948 retired from Hospitalfield and settled in Edinburgh.
Apart from his work in painting and drawing, Cowie was a distinguished student of literature and made important translations from Chaucer into modern English. An honour which gave him very great pleasure was the honorary degree of LL.D. which the University of Edinburgh conferred on him in 1952.
Illness compelled him to retire from the Secretaryship of the Academy and from active professional work in 1953, just at a time when a much wider appreciation of his work was bringing him well-deserved material success.
His work was marked by intense individuality, and he cannot be said to have belonged to any particular group. He was a traditionalist in his pursuit of searching and intimate drawing, and modern in the free way he dealt with subject and the introduction of transparent planes and other details which he incorporated into his compositions
with the greatest ingenuity.
An important part of his work is the number of small drawings and studies made to assist him in his larger pictures. Of these it can be said, as Dr. Johnson said of Goldsmith—‘‘ He touched nothing that he did not adorn.”
Apart from the Diploma Collection, his work is represented in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, the Aberdeen Art Gallery, the Glasgow Art Gallery, the Scottish Modern Arts Collection, and the Arts Council Collection, as well as portraits in several institutions.
RSA Obituary, transcribed from 1956 RSA Annual Report