The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976)

Stanley CursiterStanley Cursiter was born in 1887 in Kirkwall.

The son of a general merchant, he grew up in Alton House (where his youthful signature is still carved into a flagstone) and attended Kirkwall Burgh School, where he and the poet Edwin Muir were contemporaries and friends.

After school, Cursiter was employed by McLagan & Cumming, printers and lithographers in Edinburgh, where he learned the elements of design and print-making.

At the same time he was drawing and painting, and eventually completed his studies at Edinburgh College of Art.

In 1913 he was the only Scottish painter to embrace Futurism, and was responsible for bringing the first Futurist exhibition to Scotland through his connection with the Society of Scottish Artists. Inspired by the technique, he produced seven Futurist canvases that year, which are still among his most discussed works.

In 1916 Cursiter married Orcadian Phyllis Hourston, a gifted violinist, and almost immediately after the wedding was sent to the Somme.

He was quickly invalided out of the trenches but went on to develop a revolutionary technique of map-making in France, reducing the time taken to produce maps of the area from six weeks to 24 hours, which earned him a military OBE.

After World War I, Cursiter was earning a living as an artist and designer when he was offered the job of Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in 1925.

From there he moved to the National Gallery, where he was Director from 1930 to 1948, when he returned to Orkney.

Cursiter loved Stromness and bought a dilapidated boat-building house at the town’s edge, Stenigar, which he designed and re-built.

It was soon after World War II when he moved there, and materials were scarce. He used weather-boarding from a nearby army shed to line the staircase and hallway of the building, and trawled through junk shops and skips in Edinburgh, finding fixtures and fittings for his new home, which are still there today.

Stromness was Cursiter’s home for the rest of his life.

However, he had a second career as a portrait painter when he retired from the National Galleries, which meant frequent trips to Edinburgh and his rented studio, which formerly belonged to Raeburn.

He and Phyllis eventually moved to a smaller house at 70 Victoria Street, on the edge of a pier, looking out over Scapa Flow.

Throughout his life and career, Cursiter’s first love, and arguably his most successful subject, was Orkney and its landscape.

He particularly loved the coastline of Yesnaby and never tired of the varied light and mood of the sea and the cliffs.

One of his best-loved paintings, Linklater and Greig, shows two fishermen riding the rough sea close to the Yesnaby cliffs. It now hangs in Stromness Museum.

Another life-long love was Kirkwall's St Magnus Cathedral, and Cursiter proposed and designed St Rognvald’s Chapel in 1965, in the east end of the building.

He was also instrumental in raising the money needed for essential repairs and restoration work in the 1970s.

Cursiter had honours and recognition from many sources.

He was Her Majesty The Queen’s Painter and Limner in Scotland, and was a member of numerous societies and institutions, including the Royal Scottish Academy.

His reputation as a Scottish artist, and his influence on the national collection of art as Director of the National Galleries, are significant.

As early as the 1920s, he was the first (and most vociferous) advocate of a national gallery of modern art.

Described by others as a "renaissance man" and "a rare spirit", he thought of himself as first and foremost an "Orkneyman".

He died after a short illness in 1976, and is buried in the graveyard in Finstown.

© Pam Beasant