Elected ARSA: 20 March 1940
Elected RSA: 2 December 1947
William George Gillies, born in Haddington in 1898, died in tranquility at his luncheon table on Sunday, 15th April 1973. By this sudden death Scotland has lost one of her most distinguished artists. His painting stands out in any contemporary environment—his idiom was very personal and always unmistakably Scottish.
After a spell as a brilliant student at the Edinburgh College of Art, interrupted from 1917 to 1919 by military service, he was awarded a travelling scholar- ship which enabled him to study some time in Paris and later travel in Italy before he settled for good in his native country. Having been a member of the 1922 Group and, in 1932, one of the “Society of Kight’’—a rare distinction—he entered the brotherhood of this Academy when he was elected A.R.S.A. in 1940, becoming an Academician seven years later.
He was awarded the C.B.E. in 1957 for services to Art in Scotland and elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1964. The accolade of knighthood was bestowed on William Gillies in 1970. In 1971 he was made a Royal Academician. There was something birdlike about him: his tempo was faster than normal and while most people walked Bill Gillies ran—effortless in all is many activities and in conversation he often anticipated what was going to be said to him.
In short, he used time to the full, being a pro- lifie painter who managed also to be an inspiring teacher. At the Edinburgh College of Art his first junior appointment in 1925 led to his becoming the Head of the School of Drawing and Painting. Those who heard the cheers of his students when he rose on Graduation Day to read the names of his graduates witnessed an unforgettable testimonial of affection.
As a climax to his career as a teacher he became the Principal of the College, an appointment he enjoyed from 1961 to 1966, during which years there were many important developments, including the building of the new School of Architecture.
To his distinctions must also be added the compliments paid to this man when, in 1966, he became a Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Edinburgh University capped him ‘“‘Hon. D.Litt.”’. To most people these activities and commitments would have been more than enough, but however onerous they were it seemed to make little or no difference to the large quantity and splendid quality of Gillies’s work as a painter—it has been estimated that he completed well over 2,000 works.
He was an exciting colourist and his paintings were full of light and poetry. Dedicated as he was to the gravity of his work which ever contained an original quality of Scottish character, Bill Gillies, an inveterate maker of wines and jam, regarded life with an air of detached amusement.
To name but some of the public and private collections in Scotland in which his work is represented, mention can be made of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow along with the Scottish Arts Council. His pictures also grace National Galleries as far flung as the Tate in London, Ottowa and Peru. When the Scottish Arts Council gave him his major retrospective exhibition it attracted over 30,000 visitors.
His modest, characteristic opinion of the verdict that posterity might grant him was given in his own words replying to a friendly banter shortly before his unexpected and sudden death, “More than likely— och yes, Gillies—a pretty competent minor Scottish Artist”’. Broadly speaking, it could be said that there are two kinds of painters. Those who find their inspiration abroad and those who can only blossom in their native soil, Gillies being a perfect example of the latter.
He found all the material he wanted in Scotland—Highland landscape and Lowland townscape, in Fife and the Lothians, in little seaports and bare hillsides, especially in the charming village of Temple where he lived and died. If he was an important member of the Royal Scottish Academy, our Academy was also all important to him.
The final proof, the vindication of the regard this simple man, who remained unmarried throughout his life, had for the Academy lies in the contents of his will. With the exception of one or two minor bequests, his entire and not unsizeable Estate has been left to the Royal Scottish Academy “‘to establish a Fund, the income from which shall be devoted to such educational and/or charitable purposes as the President and Council of the Academy shall decide”’.
It would be a mistake to say that Gillies, the master of the Scottish scene, was indifferent to the many contemporary trends of art—it would be more true to say that he had something so fundamental, so pressing to say that he was not sidetracked by the passing fashions and whims of the day and his art will endure when a great deal that is fashionable will have long since been forgotten. This dear man, who will be deeply missed by all who knew him, occupied a unique place in Scottish art.
RSA Obituary by William MacTaggart. Transcribed from the 1973 RSA Annual Report