Stanley Cursiter


Oil on canvas: 16(h) x 18.3(w) in /

40.6(h) x 46.4(w) cm

Signed and dated lower left: Stanley Cursiter 1923

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SP 5484



Kirkwall, Orkney Isles 1887 – 1976 Stromness, Orkney Isles




Signed and dated lower left: Stanley Cursiter 1923

Oil on canvas: 16 x 18 ¼ in / 40.6 x 46.4 cm

Frame size: 25 ¾ x 27 ¾ in / 65.4 x 70.5 cm



Aitken Dott & Son, Edinburgh

Private collection, UK



In this superbly orchestrated interior of two female musicians, Cursiter includes a portrait of his wife Phyllis, an accomplished violinist, before a large mirror in the foreground which reflects a woman in white playing the piano. Curstier first met his wife, Phyllis Hourston, in Kirkwall in 1910, which the artist recalled in his privately printed autobiography:

When I was on my way back from Fair Isle, a Miss Phyllis Hourston came to see an exhibition I had arranged in Kirkwall. I had heard a lot about the Misses Hourston – three sisters – but for some reason I had assumed they were middle-aged. Our grandparents had been friendly; in fact, their tombstones stand side by side in the Catherdral Kirkyard. The intermediate generation had drifted apart. I was delighted to find that Phyllis was a year younger than myself. She was a musician, a violinist, and her teachers were trying to persuade her to take up music as a professional career. Her people were opposed to this, as they knew what a hard life a concert violinist must lead. Phyllis had determined to compromise, and to start by taking her L.R.A.M. By curious coincidence, the announcement that Miss Hourston had taken her L.R.A.M. appeared in the same issue of the newspaper that recorded some success of mine in the world of Art. We wrote to congratulate each other – and the correspondence continued.’[1]


At the advent of the First World War, Cursiter immediately volunteered to serve as a private in the 7th Battalion, Scottish Rifles, but was initially rejected. Later he was posted to the 1st Battalion, Scottish Rifles at Gailes, Ayrshire, only six miles from Phyllis. They were married on October 14th 1916, during Cursiter’s three days leave, one week before being sent to the Somme.

I had become engaged to a charming girl. I rang her up on a Thursday and asked what she was doing on Saturday. She said she had no plans. I said, what about getting married? So, we were married on the Saturday, and the next Saturday I was sitting on a front line trench on the Somme.’[2] He wouldn’t see his wife again for two years, returning to Edinburgh in 1919. After a six month tour of the French Riviera (from Cassis to Menton) on medical advice due to his asthma and bronchitis, the Cursiters bought a house in the New Town area of Edinburgh, 11 Royal Circus. The large drawing room on the first floor with high, north-facing windows became his studio.


Though she did not pursue a professional career, Phyllis continued to play the violin and hosted many musical evenings at their home, as well as regular lunchtime recitals, which Dr Jonathan Blackwood describes as ‘an important part of Cursiter’s studio timetable.’[3]




Kirkwall, Orkney Isles 1887 – 1976 Stromness, Orkney Isles


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.

[1] Stanley Cursiter, Looking Back: a Book of Reminiscences, Edinburgh, 1974, cited in Pamela Bessant, Stanley Cursiter a life of the artist, Orkney Museums and Heritage (Orkney Islands Council), 2007, p. 18.

[2] Cursiter during a Radio broadcast, 1966. Cited in Pamela Bessant, p. 31.

[3] Jonathan Blackwood, ‘Portraiture, 1919-25’, from Pamela Bessant, p. 140.

Modern BritishStanley Cursiter