John Douglas Michie (c1828 – 1893) was an Edinburgh artist who exhibited and sold paintings for most of his adult life. At first he was known professionally as John Michie or John M. Michie, and later as John D. Michie.[ref]Comparing addresses from lists of exhibitors with addresses in genealogical records etc. proves this is one single person. In the 1840s/50s there may have been another John Michie painting around Kelso.[/ref]
He came from a modest background. His father Henry was an excise officer who had started out as a shoemaker, and died in 1833 when John was still very young. By 1841 John was an engraver’s apprentice, his brother a shoemaker’s apprentice, and one sister a milliner. His other two sisters became trimming makers. They all lived with their mother Elizabeth.[ref]Elizabeth Heriot, daughter of a nurseryman[/ref] Ten years later the census described John Michie as “Painter & Designer assist.”.[ref] In the same year, 1851, a John Michie, lithographer, won a prize at the Edinburgh School of Design for his design for a drawing-room.[/ref]
He called himself a figure painter. Sometimes his figures were part of a scene inspired by Walter Scott (Jeanie Deans), James Hogg (Kilmeny Glen) or other writers.[ref]Not always Scottish[/ref] The title might be a line from Robert Burns (Comin’ Thro’ the Rye) or from a song (Bide a Wee).
“Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” by Mr. J.D. Michie, is a pictorial representation of the song named, and the subject is treated in a most humorous fashion. The swain in the picture is evidently just about to steal the kiss alluded to in the poem, the only spectator being a very sagacious looking dog, who, it may be presumed, will not “tell”.[ref] Dundee Courier, 26 January 1888[/ref]
Many titles suggest a romantic Scottish past: not just the fictional subjects, but paintings of traditional domestic life too. It was, however, Michie’s paintings of Breton subjects which seem to have attracted the most praise in his lifetime.
Last year Mr. Michie made a hit in his Brittany picture … [This year’s] is very interesting…”Persecuted Breton Royalists celebrating the Mass at Sea in 1794.” … The subject as a whole is remarkably well expressed and the colour and distribution of the light natural and free from exaggeration...[Report of Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) Exhibition 1866][ref]Scotsman, 6 March 1866 —And in The Art Journal 1866: “Mr John Michie’s most ambitious work is a picture of ‘Persecuted Breton Royalists celebrating the Mass at Sea’. The artist deserves credit and encouragement for adventuring on a subject specially difficult, and which he has worked out with much ability. Garishness of colour used to be alleged against him, and in this picture he has gone to the other extreme, so that the general tone is a little black; but the drawing and composition are very clever, and the solemnity of the scene is fully impressed.”[/ref]
There is no record of his visit(s) to Brittany, but he painted Breton subjects over many years. After a Selkirk journalist met him on board the Scythia in 1879, bound for New York, Michie appeared at the end of a list of “celebrity” passengers:
John D. Michie Esq., Scottish Artist, whose sketches of life in Brittany are now so well known to frequenters of the “Exhibition of Paintings.”[ref]Southern Reporter, 26 June 1879[/ref]
In the 1870s he spent a few years living in West London with his wife Eleanor. During this time his work appeared in three exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, which had also shown one of his paintings in 1864. Over Michie’s lifetime he exhibited dozens of works at the RSA, and often contributed to exhibitions elsewhere in central Scotland.
Eleanor’s brother-in-law was a successful Edinburgh picture dealer and framer, John Stewart Smith, and it would be interesting to know if this helped the Michies at all. In 1870 John D. Michie used Smith’s business address to submit paintings to the RSA.
His work was less popular at the end of his life than earlier. In 1893 Michie died suddenly. An obituary of this “very shy and retiring” man said he was well known to some of the “older painters” but not to the younger generation. His work was old-fashioned and “not of outstanding merit” but “invariably pleasing in subject and full of domestic sentiment”.[ref] Scotsman, 1 Sep 1893[/ref] A few months after his death a hundred paintings of his were put on sale and it was reported that “prices were low”. He apparently designed bookplates in his later years, perhaps using his engraver’s skills learnt young. A set for a John S. Martin by J.D. Michie showed a bust of Shakespeare on a pile of books with Edinburgh Castle in the background.[ref]Journal of the Ex Libris Society, Vol. 10. There is nothing but probability to link him to those bookplates or to the 1851 design prize mentioned in an earlier footnote.[/ref] He left £1000 for his widow Eleanor.
Eleanor Mary James was born in Clapham in about 1836. Her parents, Eliza and William James, a merchant, had died before she, then a 31-year-old governess, married John Douglas Michie in Edinburgh in 1867. Her sister Jane had settled in Edinburgh three years earlier.
She painted watercolours of flowers and one of her works, Gladioli, was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1878.
At some point after her husband died in 1893 she moved to London. In 1901 she was lodging in the same area where she had lived with him in the 1870s. By 1911 she owned a house in North Hanwell and it seems that her sister and brother-in-law spent some of their time with her there, though later she lived with them in Portobello, Edinburgh.[ref]On her 1911 census form this sentence has been struck out: “My sister and brother-in-law generally here – away in Scotland in present.”[/ref] She died in 1921 and her will left everything to “my dear sister Mrs Stewart Smith”.
- The Royal Academy of Arts; a complete dictionary of contributors and their work from its foundation in 1769 to 1904, Algernon Graves, Graves and Bell 1905
- The Royal Scottish Academy exhibitors 1826-1990 : a dictionary of artists and their work in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, Charles Baile de Laperriere, Hilmarton 1991.
- Dictionary of Scottish art and architecture, Peter J.M. McEwan, Glengarden 2004
- Wills of John Douglas Michie, 19 October 1893, and Eleanor Mary Michie, 31 January 1922
- Street directories from NLS
- Caledonian Mercury and Scotsman newspapers
- Birth, marriage, and death records, and censuses available at genealogy websites, especially scotlandspeople.gov.uk (see ‘About’ page). One of the documents that is helpful in tying things together is the record of John Douglas Michie’s marriage to Eleanor Mary James on 21 Dec 1867, giving names and occupations for them and their parents, plus an address for JDM that matches one in the RSA records for John M. Michie.
In the absence of a birth record it is not possible to give John D. Michie’s year of birth precisely. Various censuses and other documents give a range of possibilities from 1826 – 1831. 1828 fits the age recorded at the time of his marriage, and is just one year off the age given by his sister-in-law at the time of his death.