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Cursiter, Stanley

    Image Credit: ArtUK

    Full Name: Cursiter, Stanley

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1887

    Date Died: 1976

    Place Born: Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland, UK

    Place Died: Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): painting (visual works)


    Museum director and painter. Cursiter was the son of John Scott Cursiter (1850-1896), baker and liquor vendor, and Mary Johan Thomson. He attended Kirkwall grammar school between 1893 and 1904 gaining a certificate in construction in 1900. Cursiter moved to Edinburgh in 1904 in hopes of a career in architecture, but too poor to afford training, he joined the chromolithography print firm of McLagen and Cumming. Cursiter attended the Edinburgh School of Art, then study under the designer W. S. Black in 1904, then the Royal College of Art, London, and finally under W. R. Lethaby in 1908. Beginning in 1909 he supported himself as an artist and designer. In 1911 Cursiter saw the famous post-impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, organized by Roger Fry. He met Fry and Clive Bell and convinced them to loan some work for the SSA exhibition in Edinburgh. Cursiter did for Scotland what Fry had done for Britain, the exhibition brought Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin paintings to Scotland for the first time. When World War I was declared in England, Cursiter enlisted in the 1st battalion of the Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) in 1914. He married the Scottish violinist Phyllis Eda Hourston (1888-1975) in 1916. As a soldier, he fought in the battle of the Somme, later transferring to the survey battalion assigned to cartography. Cursiter invented processes for map production in the field, speeding information on enemy troop placement, which earned him a military Order of the British Empire (OBE) honor. After discharge in 1919, Cursiter returned to Scotland to paint, but moved to Cassis in southern France for six months in 1920. Here he established himself as a skilled and sensitive painter. In 1925 Cursiter was appointed keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, under J. L. Caw. He immediately threw himself into conservation, then a study in its infancy. He was appointed director of the Gallery in1930. Together with the restorer Rijksmuseum restorer Martin de Wild he developed a method of relining paintings using wax. He also published papers on X-ray analysis of paintings. Cursiter created a conservation/restoration department for the Gallery, redesigning most of the exhibition and storage spaces to make them more useable as a museum. During this time he also actively worked to implement a proposal by the Royal Commission on Galleries and Museums to create a gallery of Scottish artists, a “Scottish Tate Gallery.” Though his efforts came to no avail, it laid the groundwork for the current Scottish National Gallery. In 1938 Cursiter designed an integrated art complex, including a modern art gallery another for industrial design, and a film and performance theater. The advent of World War II prevented this from happening. Cursiter first supervised the safe hiding of the Scottish collection before being recalled to the cartography division as a civilian trainer. He returned to Edinburgh when it became apparent the stored collection was being harmed. He mounted numerous exhibitions during the war on women’s art, children’s art and images of the conflict. In 1947, he wrote Peploe: An Intimate Memoir of an Artist and of his Work on the artist Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935). Cursiter retired as director in 1948 and was awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) honor. In retirement, Cursiter became a successful portrait artist. He also published his art history, Scottish Art at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, in 1949. His autobiography, Looking Back: a Book of Reminiscences, appeared in 1974. Cursiter returned to Orkney in 1975 where devoted himself to the preservation of St. Magnus’s Cathedral. He died after contracting bronchopneumonia at his home in 1976.

    Selected Bibliography

    Scottish Art to the Close of the Nineteenth Century. London: G. G. Harrap, 1949; Peploe: an Intimate Memoir of the Artist and of his Work. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1947; and de Wild, A. Martin. A Note on Picture Relining. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1938; Art in Industry, with Special Reference to Conditions in Scotland. Edinburgh: Saltire Society/Oliver and Boyd, 1943.


    Cursiter, Stanley. Looking Back: a Book of Reminiscences. Edinburgh: privately printed, 1974; Mackenzie, Jill C. “Cursiter, Stanley.” Dictionary of National Biography; [obituary:] “Mr Stanley Cursiter.” Times (London), May 1, 1976, p. 16.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Cursiter, Stanley." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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