STANLEY CURSITER

Stanley Cursiter CBE, FRSE, FRIAS, FEIS, RSA, RSW (1887-1976)

Stanley Cursiter was born in Kirkwall. Between 1904 and 1906 he served an apprenticeship at McLagan and Cumming, a firm of printers and lithographers in Edinburgh. He studied as a painter at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1906 to 1909. In 1914 Cursiter enlisted in the army and saw action on the Somme. After a period of illness he joined the 4th Field Survey Battalion where he devised a method of making quick and accurate maps of German trenches from aerial photographs, for which he was awarded a Military OBE.

He became Keeper of the Scottish National Galleries in 1925, and worked as Director from 1930 to 1948, when he returned to Orkney. In 1948 Cursiter was appointed King’s Painter and Limner in Scotland to King George VI, and he served Queen Elizabeth II in the same office from 1952 until his death.

While living in Edinburgh, Cursiter gained a reputation as a portrait painter, but in Orkney he painted landscapes. His experiences as an apprentice, in the army, and at the National Galleries, as well as his artistic training, meant he was skilled in many areas, among them design, printing, architecture and art education. Above all, he loved Orkney and was involved in numerous creative projects, some of which are explored here.

^ Molly Guion, Stanley Cursiter, 1950s, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1630
© Orkney Islands Council

Stanley Cursiter, Sketch, 1913, watercolour on board

Stanley Cursiter, Sketch, 1913, watercolour on board; acc. no. 2017.65
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

In his autobiography, Looking Back, published in 1974, Cursiter wrote, “My practice was to work as hard as I could (on his design apprenticeship in Edinburgh) over the winter months so as to make as much money as possible. Then, in the summer, I would go to Orkney, or Shetland, for two or three months, or for as long as the money lasted. There I would paint landscapes, sea-scapes, or cliff scenes.”

The subject matter of this sketch is completely different but was given to the donor’s mother while Cursiter was painting at Spiggie, in the South Mainland of Shetland. It was a popular location for visitors because of its proximity to St Ninian’s Isle.

<Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007),
Spiggie Loch, Shetland; D135-16-349
© Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

Alongside his work at the National Galleries of Scotland and as a portrait artist, Stanley Cursiter designed book jackets for the Edinburgh publishing house, William Blackwood and Sons, which also printed the literary journal, Blackwood’s Magazine. The sketches in Orkney Archive are not necessarily the final versions chosen for the cover, but show Cursiter’s versatility and determination as an artist and advocate of good design.

Stanley Cursiter, design for book jacket for Victor L. Whitechurch,
The Adventures of Captain Ivan Koravitch, 1925, watercolour on paper
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Iain Ashman/Orkney Library & Archive

Stanley Cursiter, design for book jacket for C.W. Whitaker, The House of Lyes,
1923, watercolour on paper
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Iain Ashman/Orkney Library & Archive

Stanley Cursiter, printed book jacket for Beatrice Harraden, Ships That Pass In The Night,
first published 1893, ink on paper
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Iain Ashman/Orkney Library & Archive

Saint Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary, 1937

Saint Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary booklet, 1937; EN 935
© Orkney Islands Council

The 800th anniversary of St Magnus Cathedral was celebrated from 29th July to 1st August 1937, with events including commemorative services in the Cathedral, a BBC broadcast, a reception at the Town Hall and a pilgrimage to St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay. This booklet was designed as a handbook to the celebrations.

Stanley Cursiter was on the Octocentenary Committee with Hugh Marwick, J. Storer Clouston and Eric Linklater. They were also responsible for writing The Pageant of St Magnus, performed in Brandyquoy Park in Kirkwall on 29th July, St Olaf’s Day.

The Pageant told Orkney’s story from the arrival of Christianity to the consecration of the Cathedral in 1151, with the martyrdom of St Magnus at the centre of the action. Amateur dramatic groups from Kirkwall, Stromness, Harray and Dounby, and South Ronaldsay took part, as well as musicians, dancers, and animals. In all, around 1200 people were involved as performers and behind-the-scenes. There were two performances to an audience of almost 7000 people.

Scenes from The Pageant of St Magnus, 1937
© Orkney Library & Archive

Spectacles and case belonging to Eric Linklater (1899-1974)

Spectacles and case belonging to Eric Linklater (1899-1974); loan no. L2007.1.3
© on loan from the Linklater family. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

As well as working with him on the Cathedral’s Octocentenary programme, the author, Eric Linklater, was a friend and admirer of Stanley Cursiter’s. In 1933 Cursiter painted portraits of Linklater and his wife, Marjorie, now in the collection of the University of Aberdeen.

See Stanley Cursiter’s portrait of Eric Linklater here and of Marjorie Linkater here

> Eric Linklater © Orkney Library & Archive

Stanley Cursiter, paint box and palette, 1950s

Stanley Cursiter, paint box and palette, 1950s; acc. no. 2014.13-14
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Cursiter at work in his studio at Stenigar, pictured with the paint box
© Orkney Library & Archive

The triangular paint box was made by Stanley Cursiter for his own use. Inside there are compartments for paints and brushes and the lid is hinged, with a prop to keep it open. Both items are from Stanley Cursiter’s studio at Stenigar, the house he built from a former boatyard in Stromness.

Stanley Cursiter, The Hall of Tankerness, 1951, oil on canvas

Stanley Cursiter, The Hall of Tankerness, 1951, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1989.111
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

The earliest parts of the Hall of Tankerness, in the East Mainland of Orkney, date from about 1550. It became the country home of James Baikie around 1630 and has been altered and extended over the centuries.

<The Hall of Tankerness, Orkney
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Tankerness House and gardens with St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Courtyard of Tankerness House
© Orkney Library & Archive


The Baikie family also owned Tankerness House in Kirkwall, now Orkney Museum. Tankerness House was sold in 1951 and, in the late 1960s, a local committee was set up to oversee the development of a new museum based on the Orkney Antiquarian Society Collection which had previously been housed at Kirkwall Library.

The committee included Stanley Cursiter, Ernest Marwick, and Evan MacGillivray who was appointed Honorary Curator until a full-time appointment could be made. Students from the department of Museum Studies at Leicester University were brought in to help with displays.

The official opening by Robert B. K. Stevenson, Director of the National Museum of Antiquaries, Edinburgh, took place on 31st May 1968.

Stanley Cursiter, Seascape, oil on canvas

Stanley Cursiter, Seascape, oil on canvas, 1920s-1930s; loan no. 2008.1
On loan from a private collection © Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council.

Although undated, this painting by Cursiter is characteristic of the seascapes and coastal views of Orkney he produced in the 1920s and 1930s during summer visits when he sometimes stayed in a wooden fisherman’s hut at Yesnaby. A plaque on the frame records that it is ‘In memory of Ronnie Reid who was lost at sea’.

Cursiter’s seascape is similar in style to two views of waves and coast by Outer Hebrides artist, Malcolm Philip Macdonald (1879-1965). He was brought up in Stornoway but his parents were from Uig on the west coast of Lewis. The artist’s father was a boat-builder and, throughout his life, Macdonald showed a strong attachment to the sea, ships and his native Gaelic background through the subjects he painted. He was nicknamed Mara (Sea) because of his love of all things Gaelic and maritime. In 1900 Macdonald enrolled at Glasgow School of Art. On completing his studies in Glasgow he went on to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He returned to Lewis as one of the earliest trained visual artists in the Outer Hebrides, living and working there until he emigrated to Canada in 1909, where he continued to paint views inspired by his birthplace.

^ Malcolm Philip Macdonald, The Open Sea, 1922, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1998.1.2
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

^ Malcolm Philip Macdonald, The Uig Coast, 1926, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1998.1.3
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

Stanley Cursiter, Studies for carvings in St Rognvald’s Chapel
1965, oil on hardboard

^ Stanley Cursiter, Study for carving in St Rognvald’s Chapel: Kol Kalisson (recto), 1965, oil and string on hardboard; acc. no. 1997.136.3
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

^ Stanley Cursiter, Study for carving in St Rognvald’s Chapel: Rognvald Kali Colsson (recto),
1965, oil on hardboard; acc. no. 1997.136.1
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

^Stanley Cursiter, Study for carving in St Rognvald’s Chapel: Bishop William, 1965, oil on hardboard; acc. no. 1997.136.4
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

Stanley Cursiter proposed and designed the St Rognvald Chapel in the former presbytery at the east end of St Magnus Cathedral in 1965. The pulpit, communion table and lectern in the Chapel incorporated wooden panels from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a reference to the Cathedral’s long history.

Stanley Cursiter, Maquette of St Rognvald
for St Rognvald Chapel in St Magnus Cathedral,
1965, plaster, gauze and wire

^ Stanley Cursiter, Maquette of St Rognvald for St Rognvald Chapel in St Magnus Cathedral,
1965, plaster, gauze and wire; acc. no. 2007.19
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

Cursiter created life-size painted designs for the three figures of St Rognvald, holding a model of the early Cathedral, his father, Kol, and Bishop William the Old on the east wall. This is the only surviving plaster maquette of the figures which were then carved in wood by Reynold Eunson (1931-1978).

^ Stanley Cursiter and Reynold Eunson in the completed St Rognvald Chapel, dedicated in 1966
© Orkney Library & Archive