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George Wilson - A Brief Biography
George Wilson was born on 18th November 1848, at Tochieneal in the hamlet of Lintmill, just south of the Royal Borough of Cullen which lies on the Moray coast of Banffshire in north-west Scotland. His father, John Wilson, was the fourth in a line of Wilson family Factors who managed the vast Cullen district estates of the Earls of Findlater and Seafield.
By all accounts, and apart from their estate management duties, many of George Wilson's predecessors over the generations had acquitted themselves exceptionally in the region. They were successful farmers and cattle breeders in their own right, and they were distillers of fine malt whisky. At the same time, they were renowned for their country sporting abilities, as well as in their business acumen. However, none before George Wilson is known to have shown any obvious artistic leanings.
George was the seventh son and third youngest child within a family of 13 children. The early death of George's father in 1852 introduced a circumstance that certainly influenced the future of the young four-year-old George, when his uncle Alexander quickly moved into Tochieneal House in his brother's place to help bring up this large family of children. Alexander was of a fun-loving nature, and was equally devoted both to the children and to his great love of the countryside; and so it was these traits, rather than the business acumen shown by so many of the Wilsons, that were to shape George's own values in life.[i]
Despite the hardship of life in north-west Scotland at that time, the Wilson family were certainly far from being impoverished. Indeed, they were quite considerable farmers in their own right, and although George Wilson never apparently relied upon family financial support, he always had the comfort of knowing that, should the worst come to the worst, he would never be left destitute as a painter. He also had the benefit of numerous relatives' houses in which to stay when he returned home - as he did, regularly each year - to his beloved Aberdeen and Banffshire.
One further consequence of his family's comparative prosperity was that Wilson was afforded a good education from an early age. He went first to the local primary school in Cullen, then to the highly renowned Gymnasium in Old Aberdeen. It seems that from an early age he showed a desire not simply to paint, but to make painting his life. Thus, in 1865, while still aged 16, he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study Fine Arts. He had just turned 17 when the university year started and he is recorded as having spent the next three years studying there - although no record exists to confirm his date of graduation from the university.[ii]
Nevertheless, in the late summer of 1868, at the age of 19, he went to London and entered Thomas Heatherley's School of Fine Art, then situated at 79, Newman Street - an area of London that was to become a focal part of Wilson's life over many years. It was through his time at Heatherley's, and his relationship with the group of friends that he met there, that his outlook and his raison d'etre throughout his short life would become established. Indeed, it is only through his early association with those friends - and the fact that they 'adopted' this quiet and unassuming young Scot into their fold - that there is much at all available in the way of an account of his life. This was thanks largely to one of his friends in particular, John Butler Yeats (father of the poet, William Butler Yeats, and the artist, Jack B. Yeats), and the correspondence, writings and archives of the Yeats family from that era.[iii]
When Wilson arrived at Heatherley's, he found an established group of young artist friends who had taken their places a year or more before him, and who were already developing a clique based on their mutual interests of debate and poetry - as well as their art. Although he was between five and ten years younger than all but one of them, they seem to have responded quickly to the appealing personality of the new arrival.
[i] Cassels Brown, Andrew, The Wilsons; A Banffshire Family of Factors, Andrew Baxendine and Sons, Edinburgh, 1936
[ii] Edinburgh University Archives, Library and Special Collections
[iii] Murphy, William M., Prodigal Father, The Life of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), Cornell University Press, New York, 1978