The Watson Gordon Chair of Fine Art was founded in 1880, the first Chair of its kind in the British Isles.
Foundation of the Chair
The chair was founded by Henry George Watson (1796–1879) and Frances Watson in memory of their brother, the late Sir John Watson Gordon (1788-1864), a renowned portrait-painter and President of the Royal Academy of Scotland. The Chair was endowed with a sum of about £12,000, with instructions to the Professor to lecture 'on the History and Theory of the Fine Arts, including Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and other branches of Art therewith connected'. From a wider perspective, the Chair's focus was 'the promotion and advancement of the fine arts, and prosecution of the studies of painting, sculpture and Architecture, and other branches therewith connected, in Scotland'.
Fine Art as a subject for university study was in its infancy, and the first holder of the chair Gerard Baldwin Brown (1849-1932) thoroughly espoused the cause. In his fifty years in the post, he did much to enhances the discipline's academic profile. He is also remembered as a keen supporter of the cause of university education for women, lecturing extensively to the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women, and as a major benefactor to Edinburgh University Library through the gift of his personal book collection. He was briefly succeeded by Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), before the Chair passed to David Talbot Rice (1903-1972) in 1934.
Talbot Rice draw up a curriculum for the new Honours Degree in Fine Art, working in conjunction with Edinburgh College of Art. The teaching programme that he devised exerted a major national influence and remains at the core of art history teaching at the university. Other significant initiatives were Talbot Rice's acquisition of the Raymond Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments (now held in the Musical Instruments Museum Edinburgh at St Cecilia's Hall) and his campaign to open an arts centre on the University Campus. This plan eventually came to fruition under Talbot Rice's successor, Giles Henry Robertson (1913-1987), with the opening in 1975 of the Talbot Rice Gallery, named in his honour. Robertson, who as a young lecturer assisted Talbot Rice in drawing up the Fine Art curriculum, is another significant benefactor to the university, having bequeathed his personal collection to the University Library. Robert's successor Eric Campbell Fernie (1939- ) was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts, before leaving to take up the post of Director of the Courtauld Institute in 1995.
Merger with Edinburgh College of Art
The current Professor, Richard Thomson (1953- ) helped oversee the merger of Edinburgh University with Edinburgh College of Art in 2011. Following the merger, the Edinburgh College of Art retained its name and identity as an enlarged school within the College of Humanities and Social Science. It absorbed Edinburgh University's School of Arts, Culture and Environment, which consisted of the School of History of Art, the Reid School of Music, and the already merged Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Holders of the Watson Gordon Chair of Fine Art
- 1880-1930: Gerard Baldwin Brown (1849-1932)
- 1931-1933: Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968)
- 1934-1972: David Talbot Rice (1903-1972)
- 1972-1981: Giles Henry Robertson (1913-1987)
- 1984-1995: Eric Campbell Fernie (1939- )
- 1996- : Richard Thomson (1953- )
- Alexander Falconer Giles, 'The Faculty of Arts', in History of the University of Edinburgh 1883-1933, ed. A. Logan Turner (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1933), pp. 164-238.
- Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
- Roger Tarr, ‘Rice, David Talbot (1903–1972)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)