Stanley Cursiter

Poppy Low

Oil on canvas: 16.3(h) x 18(w) in /

41.3(h) x 45.7(w) cm

Signed and dated lower left: Stanley Cursiter 1922

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BH 87



Kirkwall, Orkney Isles 1887 – 1976 Stromness, Orkney Isles


Poppy Low


Signed and dated lower left: Stanley Cursiter 1922

Oil on canvas: 16 ¼ x 18 in / 41.3 x 45.7 cm

Frame size: 25 ½ x 28 in / 64.8 x 71.1 cm



Private collection, Glasgow, c.1940, then by descent


This lovely portrait reflects the flowering of Stanley Cursiter’s art in the 1920s, after he returned from serving on the Somme with the 1st Battalion Scottish Rifles in the First World War. Happily married to the musician Phyllis Hourston, he settled with his wife at 11 Royal Circus in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. As his biographer Pamela Beasant comments, ‘His painting took on a new intensity’[1]. Cursiter wrote of this period: ‘I was fascinated by problems of technique: ways of doing it, and the materials used; the character of different mediums….I began studying the Old Masters – not only for the interest in the lives they lived, but also their methods of pictorial composition; their materials and painting methods’[2].


Poppy Low, with her fashionable black bob and neat features, was a favourite model of Cursiter in the early 1920s. The calligraphic freedom of the brushwork in this painting, as well as the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, suggest that he had been studying the work of Velásquez and Frans Hals, although the subtle palette of whites, creams and lilacs also echoes Whistler. Cursiter has conjured from these influences a highly sophisticated and original painting, mastering a difficult feat: making a strongly foreshortened figure seem at once elegant and spatially convincing. Poppy emerges from the midnight blue sofa, a confection of long limbs and gossamer costume. The gracious setting and mood of poetic reverie celebrate a peace and civilization far from the still-fresh horrors of the First World War. ‘[Cursiter’s] beautiful sitters, and elegantly styled interiors, look back nostalgically to the Edwardian portraiture of Sargent, Orpen and Lavery, and hold out the hope that the middle class prosperity and comfort that they represent will again be attainable, despite the social and political turbulence of the decade in which they were painted’[3].


Poppy Low appears in a similar white dress in the celebrated ‘conversation piece’ Chez nous, 1925, a nocturne depicting Cursiter, Phyllis and Poppy in the shadowy drawing room of 11 Royal Circus (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh). In 1924 Cursiter had accepted the post of Keeper of the National Galleries of Scotland. Although he proved a brilliant administrator, it spelled the end of his freedom to be a full-time painter.



Fig. 1 Stanley Cursiter, Poppy Lowe, 1922.

Private collection.


At first sight the white muslin and lace worn by Poppy Low might recall Edwardian taste in dress, but the startling informality of the pose and the simplicity of the short bobbed hair

with a square-cut fringe[4] place the portrait in the 1920s. Comfortable summer daytime wear in the years before the First World War, white cotton dresses remained popular afterwards.

At first they assumed the columnar line of the late Edwardian period but with slightly shorter skirts, as in Peploe’s Girl in white of c.1918–19 (fig. 3); from about 1920 a number of

French couturiers introduced a dress known as a robe de style, with a tighter bodice and wide rounded skirt. Poppy wears a modest (probably home-made) version of this dress in white

muslin, lace and satin. White satin is threaded through the short sleeves and over the torso is a wide band of the same silk creating a fairly close-fitting bodice. The dress itself is made of muslin, over which is a rumpled overskirt, either of Carrickmacross applique lace (net with

applied muslin motifs), or possibly a machine-made imitation.[5] With regard to this portrait there is perhaps a deliberate undermining of ‘femininity’, in the disarrangement of the delicate fabrics of the dress by the way she slouches on the sofa; critics claimed that the new post-war freedom of women encouraged such ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. The dress was a favourite of the artist, and appears (or variants of it) in many paintings by him, such as Poppy Lowe (1922; fig. 1).


Aileen Ribeiro




Fig. 2 Paul Poiret’s version of the                    Fig. 3 Samuel John Peploe, Girl in

robe de style, an evening dress of white   White, c.1920. Private collection.

satin over gauze. Le Jardin de l’Infante,

Gazette du Bon Ton, September 1920.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.




Kirkwall, Orkney Isles 1887 – 1976 Stromness,



A Scottish painter of figure subjects and landscapes, Stanley Cursiter had a distinguished career, culminating in 1948 with his appointment as ‘His Majesty’s Painter and Limner in Scotland’ and the award of CBE. Born in Kirkwall, Cursiter moved to Edinburgh around 1905, where he was apprenticed as a designer to a firm of printers, McLagan and Cummings. During this period he studied five nights a week at the Edinburgh College of Art. After refusing a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, he became a full-time student at Edinburgh.


Cursiter’s first exhibition was in Kirkwall in 1910, the year in which he met his future wife, Phyllis Hourston.  Between 1914 and 1918 he served in the First World War in France, and although he still managed to paint, it was not until 1920 that he completely resumed his career, setting up a studio in Edinburgh.


The versatility of Cursiter’s artistic talent resulted in several different styles. His early works were mostly Symbolist pictures, conversation pieces and conventional lithographs.   He chose however, to concentrate on conversation pieces and in 1920 recalled how the Edinburgh gallery ‘Messrs Aitken Dott commissioned me to paint twenty pictures of pretty girls in pretty frocks, arranging flowers, leaning against a piano or gracing some similar pictorial theme’.  Cursiter was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1927, a full member in 1937, and President of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours from 1951-2.


Cursiter combined the skills of a talented artist and an excellent administrator. From 1924-30, he was Keeper of the National Galleries of Scotland and in 1930 succeeded Sir James Caw as Director, a position he held until 1948, when he resigned in order to devote more time to painting. He also found time to publish two books, Peploe, 1947, and Scottish Art, 1949. As fellow RSA DM Sutherland commented: ‘Stanley Cursiter…had more than a little of the Renaissance man about him…architecture, perspective, geology, agriculture, economy, printing processes, radio, the chemistry of picture restoration, art history and of course painting [were all within his expertise]’ (Stanley Cursiter Centenary Exhibition, catalogue, Stromness, 1987, p.9). Cursiter died in Stromness, Orkney in 1976.


The work of Stanley Cursiter is represented in the British Royal Collection; the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; the Royal Scottish Academy Diploma Collection and the Orkney Library and Archive.


Susan Morris

[1] Stanley Cursiter: a Life of the Artist, Kirkwall 2007, p.40.

[2] Quoted in Beasant op. cit., p.40.

[3] Beasant, p.145.

[4] A hairstyle which later in the 1920s became the trademark of the American movie star Louise Brooks.

[5] Information kindly supplied by Clare Browne of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Modern BritishStanley Cursiter