Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pettie, John
PETTIE, JOHN (1839–1893), painter, born in Edinburgh on 17 March 1839, was son of Alexander Pettie, a tradesman of some means, and of Alison, his wife. The elder Pettie did not resist his son's evident vocation for art. At ten Pettie removed with his parents to East Linton, Haddingtonshire, and at seventeen began his training at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, under the auspices of Robert Scott Lauder [q. v.] Among his fellow-students were Mr. Orchardson, Mr. McWhirter, Mr. MacTaggart, Mr. Peter Graham, Mr. Tom Graham, and George Paul Chalmers [q. v.], all of whom became distinguished painters. The careers of Pettie and his companions mark a distinct development in the history of the modern Scottish school, which had its origin in the personality of Lauder, their master. The pictorial aims and ambitions of the group wholly differed from those of their immediate predecessors, among whom may be reckoned Sir Noel Paton, the brothers Faed, Mr. Erskine Nicol, and Robert Herdman. With all of these the chief preoccupation was the telling or illustration of a story, the making of a dramatic point, the insistence on some domestic affection, humorous or pathetic. Pettie's work, on the other hand, invariably embodies some purely pictorial motive over and above the subject, specially aiming at a rich resonance of colour. His fame springs mainly from the success with which he pursued this latter ideal.
Pettie's first exhibited picture, ‘The Prison Pet,’ appeared at the Scottish Academy in 1859, and was followed by ‘False Dice,’ ‘Distressed Cavaliers,’ and ‘One of Cromwell's Divines.’ In 1860 he made his début as an exhibitor in London, sending to the Royal Academy a picture, ‘The Armourers,’ which found a place on the line. His next effort, ‘What d'ye lack, Madam?’ a study of Jenkin Vincent in the ‘Fortunes of Nigel,’ was no less popular. Thus encouraged, the young painter made up his mind in 1862 to join his friend Mr. Orchardson, who had settled in London some twelve months before. The two artists shared a studio for several years, first in Pimlico, and later at 37 Fitzroy Square, afterwards the home of Ford Madox Brown. Pettie was the earlier of the pair to win a wide recognition, his daring and assertive harmonies soon compelling attention. It was, however, to a robust capacity for taking pains, no less than to the more proclamatory style of his talent, that Pettie owed his acceptance as leader, when more young men came southwards to swell the band of London Scots. Prolific as he was industrious, he soon became one of the best known of British painters, and his rapid succession of canvases found a ready sale among dealers and private collectors. His first contribution to the Royal Academy after his migration was another scene from Scott, ‘The Prior and Edward Glendinning.’ In 1863 he was represented by ‘The Trio,’ ‘The Tonsure,’ and ‘George Fox refusing to take the Oath;’ in 1864 by ‘At Holker Hall;’ in 1865 by ‘The Drumhead Court-martial;’ and in 1866 by ‘An Arrest for Witchcraft,’ a vigorous and dramatic piece of work, which secured his election as A.R.A. A year before, on 24 Aug. 1865, he had married Miss Elizabeth Ann Bossom, the sister-in-law of another Scottish painter, Mr. C. E. Johnson, and had deserted Mr. Orchardson to set up house for himself. In 1873 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in succession to Sir Edwin Landseer, contributing ‘Jacobites, 1745’ as his diploma picture. In 1881 he moved from St. John's Wood Road, where he had lived since 1869, to a house of his own building, the Lothians, in FitzJohn's Avenue, Hampstead, which he occupied for the rest of his life.
Between 1860 and his death, in 1893, Pettie sent about 130 pictures to the Royal Academy, to say nothing of the numerous works which went privately to their destined homes. The following are among the best and most deservedly popular of his later productions:—‘Terms to the Besieged’ (1872), ‘The Flag of Truce’ (1873), ‘Sword and Dagger Fight’ (1877), ‘A Death Warrant’ (1879, now at Hamburg), ‘Before his Peers’ (1881), ‘Monmouth and James II’ (1882), ‘The Vigil’ (1884; Chantrey Fund collection), ‘Challenged’ and ‘Sir Peter Teazle’ (1885), ‘The Chieftain's Candlesticks’ (1886; a vigorous and brilliant piece of bravura, perhaps his most striking work), ‘The Traitor’ (1889), and ‘The Ultimatum’ (1892). In his later years Pettie turned his attention to portraiture with considerable success, and left unfinished several important commissions at his death. He was fond of painting his friends ‘in costume.’ His most striking portrait, perhaps, is that of Mr. Charles Wyndham in the part of David Garrick.
The dash and vigour of Pettie's finer work were characteristic not only of the painter, but of the man; and yet he was the least assertive and self-confident of craftsmen. An indefatigable worker, he felt the conviction he constantly proclaimed, that his only merit, his only hope of success, lay in his capacity for hard and unremitting toil. In his best years his work exhibited a glow and transparency of colour which have seldom been surpassed; in his later period he betrayed a tendency on the one hand towards a hasty coarseness of execution, on the other towards a violence in his colour contrasts, which will probably lead to a future neglect of the pictures produced during the last few years of his life. For about eighteen months before his death he suffered from a disease of the ear, which eventually led to an abscess on the brain. This produced paralysis, to which he succumbed at Hastings on 21 Feb. 1893 at the early age of fifty-four. He was buried in Paddington cemetery on 27 Feb. 1893. Kindly, genial, and hospitable, he was always ready to help and encourage the more struggling members of his own profession.
Pettie left three sons and a daughter (wife of Mr. Hamish McCunn, the musical composer).
A representative exhibition of Pettie's work was held at Burlington House in the winter of 1894. The best portrait of him is one by Mr. Arthur Cope, in the possession of Mrs. Pettie.
[Catalogues of the Royal Academy; private information.]