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Caw, Sir James

Sir James Lewis Caw (1864 -1950) was a Scottish art critic, historian and curator. He argued for the existence of an independent and free-standing "Scottish school of painting" arising in the second half of the 19th century.

He was born in Ayr and, after study at Ayr Academy, became an apprentice engineer at the West of Scotland Technical College. He then worked from 1887 as an engineering draughtsman, initially in Glasgow, then Edinburgh.

Caw was introduced to the Scottish art world in the early 1880s by James Guthrie (1859-1920) and made significant friendships, in particular with some of the other Glasgow Boys including Alexander Roche (1863-1921) and Edward Arthur Walton (1860-1922), and with Sir James Lawton Wingate (1846-1924) and William McTaggart (1835-1910), the latter the pioneer of Scottish impressionism.

Caw took art courses at the Glasgow School of Art and Royal Scottish Academy School of Art. In 1895 his painting and art criticism were sufficiently well known to gain him an appointment as curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. A monograph (biography) on 'Sir Henry Raeburn', written together with Sir Walter Armstrong (1850-1918), appeared in 1901. In 1907 he became the initial director of the National Gallery of Scotland, remaining in post until 1930.

Caw's interest in the range of art periods led to astute purchases in works, from the so-called "Italian primitives" to post-Impressionism. Paul Gauguin's spectacular ‘Vision after the Sermon’ ("Jacob and the Angel") and Claude Monet's ‘Poplars on the Epte’ were acquired by Caw in 1925 alone.

Both through his acquisitions for the Gallery and as art critic of The Scotsman for seventeen years Caw did much to shape artistic taste in Scotland. He joined the Scotsman newspaper as art critic in 1916, remaining until 1933. He was a member of the Scottish Arts Club. In 1908, he published his 'Scottish Painting, Past and Present 1620–1908', a serious study of Scotland's art.

He married artist William McTaggart's daughter, Anne Mary McTaggart (1864–1949), known as Annie, in 1909. They had no children.

Caw is considered the major historian of Scottish art of the first half of the 20th century. His published works on individual artists include ‘Portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn’ (1909), ‘William McTaggart: A Biography and an Appreciation’ (1917) and monographs (biographical studies) on Sir James Guthrie (1932) and Allan Ramsay (1937).

Himself a watercolour painter, Caw exhibited from 1887 to 1922. Paintings by him hang in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

In 1931 Caw was knighted. Though retired, he organised the exhibition of Scottish art at the Royal Academy, London, in 1939, with Stanley Cursiter (1887 -1976). He sat on the editorial committee of the Burlington Magazine and the Walpole Society.

He died at his home in Lasswade, Midlothian, on 5 December 1950.


‘Arran Peaks’

Pastel on paper 22.80 x 31.80 cm

Print Room, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Bequeathed by Sir James Lewis Caw and Lady Caw 1951

Sculpted bust of Sir James Caw by Benno Schotz – National Galleries Scotland


Elements of this biography are derived from Wikipedia and used under an Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons License. You can read the wikipedia entry for Sir James Caw here

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