“He did a lot of paintings of local people and some of the paintings may have gone down through families with people not thinking too much about them - he’s not that well known,” Fiona explains.
“I’m hoping in the long run to do a public exhibition in Edinburgh. I’m in the last year of my PhD now, mainly writing up and doing some more research to try and locate more of his paintings.”
Fiona initially began researching Shiels in the late 1990s when she was working in the National Museum of Scotland. “The Trustees got in touch with staff and said there was some funding available for research projects,” she explains. “I had an art history background and there hadn’t been much research into the Shiels paintings before so I did that for three months.” She worked in various museums and galleries, before deciding to change her career in 2006, and started her PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2007. There has previously been little work on Shiels, which Fiona says was part of the appeal.
“I could have picked one of the more famous names but hundreds of people have already done that, and I’ve really enjoyed researching Shiels and his work - it has been fascinating,” she insists.
William Shiels was born at Hounslow in the parish of Westruther in 1783, son of a farmer and blacksmith who worked on the Spottiswoode estate, known for its cattle breeding. “Having worked in farming, Shiels began an apprenticeship under the Edinburgh cabinet-maker William Trotter, and studied at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh,” Fiona says. “After further study at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, he began exhibiting his paintings in 1808, and taught pupils, including the Berwickshire-born portrait painter William Yellowlees (1796-1856).”
Throughout most of his life Shiels lived and worked in Edinburgh, London and Berwickshire; returning to the area around Kelso, particularly to Fawside/Falside, and Huntlywood. He notably painted Reverand George Home and his wife, the owners of Gunsgreen House, Eyemouth, and painted portraits and other works for many of the farmers, ministers, and gentry in the county, including the Baillie’s of Mellerstain, and the 84-year-old gardener, Thomas Waldie.
Fiona’s research has taken her the length and bredth of Britian, and she even spent six weeks in America. She explains: “Shiels was known to be genial, warm and friendly, but he was also adventurous; as he spent nearly nine years working successfully in the USA from 1817, in New York, Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. He helped found two art academies; The South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts (1821), and the Royal Scottish Academy (1826) and was a very active promoter of them.”
Today Shiels is most well-known for the 100 scientifically-accurate life-size and half life-size animal paintings made in the 1830s and 1840s. These were commissioned by Berwickshire-native Professor David Low for the Museum of Agriculture that he established at the University of Edinburgh.
Shiels’ expert knowledge of breeding meant that he selected the best cattle, sheep, horses, goats, and pigs to paint, and 56 were published as lithographs in Low’s ‘The Breeds of the Domesticated Animals of the British Islands’ (1842).
“I have seen two letters that Shiels wrote in which he was describing that it was him that was choosing the animals, not the professor, as he had a better knowledge of which were the best recent examples of good breeds!” Fiona says.
Several of the animals are now extinct, making those paintings even more important. “Many of them are now in the National Museums of Scotland, but over fifty are lost,” Fiona says. “There’s seven on display, the rest are in storage and a lot need restoring.”
Shiels also painted many scenes from daily life, such as The Marriage Proposal (1810), Feeding Chickens (1828), and A Scottish Fishing Party (c.1840, Yale Centre for British Art). He painted game birds, waterfowl, and animal portraits, and some landscape paintings, mainly of Perthshire and the Western Isles. Fiona is still trying to trace these, and the hundreds of portraits that he painted, and would be very grateful to hear from readers who know of any paintings or drawings by Shiels, or any documents which may relate to him at [email protected]