John Henry Lorimer’s first full-scale portrait was of his mother Hannah, painted when he was only nineteen. Christopher Hussey, the first biographer of her son Robert, wrote that “though she lived to a great age, she never grew up, never grew out of her habit of loving all beautiful things however humble their face value.” Together with her husband James, she restored Kellie Castle and filled it with music and memories. She later studied as a mature student at the University of Edinburgh where James was one of the forty professors, known as ‘the forty thieves,’ teaching Public Law.
At twenty-two, John Henry painted his father’s portrait. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it received high praise from Sir Frederick Leighton, the president of the Academy, and John Everett Millais, the leading portrait painter of the day. The Times compared it to “the simplicity and understanding of a Moroni,” a review quoted with pride and delight in a letter from Mrs Lorimer's to her daughter Alice.
Alice was painted by John Henry throughout his career. The earliest painting is Conversation Piece, a double portrait with her older sister Lorrie. Another early portrait was on his younger brother Robert. Of Robert, John Henry wrote: “From childhood he was handsome and strong, with beautiful bray-blue eyes, fair brown hair with gold tips, and an engaging manner. He was merry and helpful and sang in his bath. He was on the best terms with his father and mother and all of us.” Monica Lorimer, John Henry’s great niece, was painted by her mother Mary at a similar age to when Robert was painted. Each canvas expresses not only the skill of the maker but the affection for the person within the frame.
Mrs Hannah Lorimer (1875), John Henry Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer as a Boy (1876), John Henry Lorimer, Tate Collections, Photo: © Tate
Conversation Piece (Left: Hannah Lorimer, Right: Alice Lorimer) (1879), John Henry Lorimer, On Loan to Kirkaldy Galleries, Photo: © Kirkcaldy Galleries
Prof. James Lorimer (1878), John Henry Lorimer, University of Edinburgh, Photo: © University of Edinburgh
Monica Lorimer (1946), Mary Lorimer (née Wylie), Kellie Castle, Photo: © The National Trust for Scotland
John Henry made a living through his portraiture but it was his imagined scenes of everyday life, known as genre, that he longed to paint. An evening of music and dancing is remembered in Spring Moonlight, a young woman swirling around with her young baby. Mrs Lorimer described how John Henry worked tirelessly to complete the painting for the Royal Academy: “Willie Wheeler passing to his work soon after five in the morning still saw the light and said to him “does Mr John never go to his bed at all?” The painting was chosen by the people of Kirkcaldy as their favourite painting in Kirkcaldy Galleries.
In Hush, John Henry's sister-in-law Violet Lorimer (née Wyld) soothes her sleeping son Christopher before a beaming window of sunlight. While in The Flight of the Swallows fading summer light falls on Alice as she watches the birds soar above the turrets of Kellie with her children.
The title of John Henry's diploma work for the Royal Scottish Academy, Maternal Instinct, highlights his admiration for mothers and his delight in depicting them. He was elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1882 and made a full member in 1900. He exhibited one hundred and twenty-three works at the Academy in Edinburgh and forty-three at the Academy in London.
In 1903, he was unanimously elected to become a member of the Academie des Beaux Arts, the highest public honour for a foreign artist. He was later chosen to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, after the purchase of Grandmother’s Birthday by the French Government. The painting captures Mrs Lorimer’s birthday in the dining room of Kellie Castle, a celebration shared by all, old and young, and made eternal in John Henry’s canvas. Sadly, John Henry was unable to accept the Legion d'Honneur due to red tape and changes to British regulations.
Spring Moonlight (1896), John Henry Lorimer, Kirkcaldy Galleries, Photo: © Fife Council
Maternal Instinct (1892), John Henry Lorimer, Royal Scottish Academy, Photo: © Royal Scottish Academy
Hush (1905-1906), John Henry Lorimer, Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery, Photo: © Rochdale Arts and
Flight of the Swallows (1906), John Henry Lorimer, Edinburgh City Art Centre, Photo: © City of Edinburgh Council
Grandmother’s Birthday (1893), John Henry Lorimer, Musée d’Orsay, Photo: © Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais
John Henry was inspired both by the people within Kellie Castle and by the place itself. “The view from the Castle embraces the whole estuary of the Forth, from the Isle of May to Edinburgh, together with the opposite coast, from North Berwick Law and the Bass as far inland as the Lammermoor hills,” wrote Prof. James.
Fellow artist and friend W. D. McKay wrote that John Henry’s paintings captured “the glamour and mystery of twilight and dawn, the white heat of the noon tide, and the diffused light of our grey northern skies.” Yet his light and landscapes never evolved into the flickering strokes of the Impressionists, who were in the midst of hosting their independent exhibitions while John Henry was in Paris, studying under Carolus-Duran. John Henry considered the intentions of Claude Monet “eccentric,” although he did admire his “good qualities of colour and air.”
William James Lorimer, John Henry’s great nephew, reflected that the same particular British light and air of the East Coast, represented by John Constable in Suffolk, is depicted by John Henry in Fife. Charlotte Lorimer also found inspiration in the skies of Fife. In her screen-prints, she strove to capture the same light which floods the paintings set at Kellie, less than two miles from her home. The birds which soar across the silk were made from arrangements of leaves and seeds gathered from the fields under the Fife skies.
View from Kellie Castle, John Henry Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Fife Birds (2013), Charlotte Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The Lorimers traveled extensively, sketching and painting as they went. John Henry Lorimer was one of many who copied The Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli. He described Italy as “an enthralling wonderland of art." Yet after several months there, he wrote to his mother that he had “quite abandoned the notion of staying on indefinitely,” suspecting that “a long stay would be a slow poison.” No matter where he traveled, he always returned to Scotland and his family.
When Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer became a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1906, his brother John Henry made a copy of the portrait he made twenty years earlier. He reportedly described the two paintings as “two peas in a pod.”
His sister Lorrie made a copy of the portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn of her great grandfather Robert Stodart, who patented the first British grand piano in 1771. A Stodart piano came to Kellie when Hew Lorimer was living there. The piano had been found in the stables at Wemyss Castle and exchanged for the pony trap which had been the only transport from Kellie during WWII.
Copy of Madonna of the Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli, Kellie Castle, Photo: © National Trust for Scotland
Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer (1905), John Henry Lorimer, Royal Institute of British Architects, Photo: © Royal Institute of British Architects
Copy of Portrait of Robert Stodart, Sir Henry Raeburn, Hannah Lorimer (née Stodart), Kellie Castle,
Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer