Stanley Cursiter RSA

  • Born : 1887
  • Died : 1976
  • Associate Elected : 16/03/1927
  • Academician Elected : 10/02/1937

BIOGRAPHY

  • Born : 1887
  • Died : 1976
  • Associate Elected : 16/03/1927
  • Academician Elected : 10/02/1937

RSA Obituary, transcribed from 1976 RSA Annual Report

It has been said that the great Venetian Artists were painters first and foremost whereas their Florentine counterparts turned from painting to sculpture or architecture or writing with apparent ease. In that sense Stanley Cursiter was more Florentine than Venetian. The distinctions he gained and the positions he graced from his experience in the 1914-18 war as Captain attached to the Field Survey Battalion for which he was awarded his military OBE, to his appointment as Director of the National Gallery of Scotland from 1930 to 1948, as H.M. Painter and Limner in Scotland, CBE, RSA, President of both the S.S.A. and the R.S.W., Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland, LLD of Aberdeen University, Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Orkney, and a Freeman of the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, all clearly show the high regard in which his talents were held.

He published several books on Scottish painting and finally, only two years ago, under the title Looking back, a brief account of his life which showed that even at the great age of 87 his memory was bright and sharp. The opening sentence reads “I was born on the 29th April 1887; the son of John Scott Cursiter, the senior partner in the firm of Cursiter Brothers, general merchants in Kirkwall”, and goes on to tell of his childhood days on the island and the people who influenced him. Under the tutorship of a Mr Bowen he sat and passed a certificate in advanced Building Construction and he says “Now I felt I was indeed launched on my career as an architect. Mr Bowen had the most far-reaching influence on my young life. We remained great friends until his death fifty years later.”

However, with the death of his father, the substantial fee required to article the young Stanley to an Edinburgh architect was more than the family could now afford. ‘Fortunately a portfolio of his drawings which he had taken to Edinburgh was seen by an Edinburgh publisher and he soon started a five years’ apprenticeship as a designer with Messrs McLagan & Cumming, Chromolithographers and Printers. The apprentices attended classes five nights a week at the School of Art. “This”, he writes, “was not perhaps art training at the highest level but it was excellent grounding for students at our stage of development.” The winning of a Royal Exhibition would have gained him two or three years at South Kensington, but he decided the course was geared to the production of art teachers and “I had no wish to teach”. However, he did a six week course under W. R. Lethaby and found this inspiring. Having studied at first in the Trustees Academy in the Royal Institution (the present R.S.A. building) he went on to complete three years at the new Edinburgh College of Art in Lauriston. Thereafter, while working as a freelance designer having as much work as he could undertake, he was also painting pictures which found a ready market. While still a student, he was elected a member of the S.S.A.

The First World War saw him introduced to map printing, where his knowledge of lithography proved of immense value; when he was demobilized in 1919 he had been twice mentioned in despatches and awarded a Military OBE. Was it his experiences in connection with the Royal Corps of Signals that made Cursiter passionately interested in radio in the early days of broadcasting in Scotland?

Following his return to Edinburgh, he was soon elected President of the S.S.A. and a few years later was appointed Keeper of the National Galleries, then under the directorship of Sir James Caw. In 1930 Stanley Cursiter succeeded him as Director, to continue in that office for eighteen years until his resignation in 1948. During the Second World War he was given leave of absence to join the Ordnance Survey in charge of all the drawing offices with a thousand draughtsmen under his care. However, he still had responsibility for National Gallery pictures which; following the Director’s careful planning and negotiating, had been moved to castles and private houses outside Edinburgh for safety. With the passing of time when experience proved that Edinburgh was not a priority bombing target, the Galleries were reopened to show a skeleton collection and he returned to Edinburgh to organize over the next few years, some eighty exhibitions including over twenty of Child Art.

His retiral from the Gallery made 1948 an important year for Stanley Cursiter, most of his honours dating from this time. In 1953 he was elected Secretary of the Academy, an appointment he held for two years. He now began to spend the winters in Edinburgh painting portraits and the summers in Orkney painting landscapes and seascapes. His sitters included many of the famous, among them the Queen Mother.

This man, who actively “went into training” before embarking on a portrait commission, at the age of seventy-five was finding the physical effort of portrait painting too great: gout was diagnosed. His wife, his close companion, had also been ill but after an operation had recovered completely and they moved permanently to the old house in Stromness in Orkney which he had planned and reconstructed for their old age. Now he interested himself in local affairs, not least of which was the formation of a new chapel dedicated to St Rognvald in St Magnus Cathedral, one of his favourite painting subjects.

Elected an Associate of the Academy in 1927 and an Academician in 1937, Stanley Cursiter was loved and admired by his fellow members. Handsome, genial, a good conversationalist and too infrequent broadcaster-a gifted painter who brought distinction to all he touched, including this Academy. His contributions to the Summer Exhibitions, all handled with brilliant technique and often in a very high key, include portraits, landscapes, coast scenes, architectural and figure subjects. His death on 22nd April of this year at the age of 89 ended a life which had been full of recognized accomplishment, duly honoured.