The son of an Edinburgh architect, Alexander Johnston was apprenticed to a seal engraver before studying at the Trustees’ Academy from 1831 to 1834. In 1836 he travelled to London and entered the Royal Academy Schools. Though he initially specialised in portraiture, Johnston soon developed an interest in subject painting and in 1841 he exhibited his first history painting, ‘The Interview of the Regent Murray with Mary Queen of Scots’. Although he settled in London, his native Scotland continued to provide the inspiration for his paintings, which were often based on Scottish literature and historical events. The art historian Sir James Lewis Caw admired Johnston’s ‘sound drawing and expressive composition’, and observed that his paintings were ‘austere and grave in feeling’.