Ada, on paper

Content warning: This blog mentions child death.

The census, normally taken every ten years, gathers important data about Scotland’s population. This enables public services to more effectively cater to the needs of those who live in Scotland today. Census records must be kept confidential for 100 years. After that, they become valuable tools to find out more about historical communities and individuals.

William Brodie, Scots Girl, 1869, marble. Gift from Mrs. Ada Barclay, 1902

In 1902, Ada Barclay presented a marble bust by Aberdeen-born sculptor William Brodie (1815–1881), of herself as a child of about 12, to the Scottish National Gallery. The bust is inscribed with the date 1869, and Brodie showed it at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) exhibition the following year. He was one of Scotland’s leading portrait sculptors at that time and at the height of his success. The bust showcases the classical influence on his style while also exemplifying his tender depictions of child sitters.  

Fairly little was known about her, except that she was the daughter of portrait painter John Maclaren Barclay and she became a painter in her own right who lived in India for several years. We followed the traces left in census records and other documentation to find out more about her story. 

A forgotten family tragedy 

John Maclaren Barclay, Self-Portrait, about 1851, oil on canvas.

Gift from the artist's daughters, 1902.

Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

John Maclaren Barclay, Mary Barclay, née Rose, the Artist's Wife, 1865, oil on canvas. Gift from A. F. B. Bridges, 1992.

Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Ada Mary Barclay was born to John Maclaren Barclay and his wife Mary Ann Ross in Perth on 15 July 1857. According to the 1861 census, three-year-old Ada was living at 1 Blackfriars Street in Perth with her father, identified as ‘Portrait Painter’ and head of the household, her mother and her siblings: her older sister Priscilla, her younger sister Julia and new-born baby brother ‘Horatio M’. He was named after the landscape painter Horatio McCulloch (1805–1867) whom John Maclaren Barclay likely knew personally. Two servants also lived with the family.  

1861 census entry for Ada Barclay. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Census 1861, 387/1 1/3

The next census, of 1871, presents a very different picture: the family has moved to 11 Forres Street in Edinburgh’s New Town. The move to Edinburgh was doubtlessly motivated by Barclay’s desire to further his artistic career. The make-up of the family has changed: a new sister, Lucy, has been born but there is no mention of Priscilla, Julia or Horatio. 

1871 census entry for Ada Barclay. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Census 1871, 685/1 66/24
1871 census entry for Ada Barclay. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Census 1871, 685/1 66/24

The census records do not give away the tragic details of what happened between 1861 and 1871. The family’s first address in Edinburgh was 38 Dublin Street, also in the New Town. On 3 May 1865, Horatio McCulloch Barclay passed away there. The cause of death was given as rubiola (measles) and pertussis, or whooping cough. Another sister, Charlotte Hill Barclay, born in 1862, also died of whooping cough, on 17 May 1865. Priscilla and Julia died a few days later, on 24 and 25 May, of the same disease. Ada was the only one of John and Mary’s children who survived.  

The following year, in 1866, the Barclay’s youngest daughter was born. She was named Lucy Graham Weir Barclay, doubtlessly in honour of the doctor who had looked after the Barclay’s other children: their death records identify the medical attendant as Thomas Graham Weir (1812–1896), a specialist in midwifery and children’s diseases.

John Maclaren Barclay painted a portrait of Dr Graham Weir which was exhibited at the RSA in 1867. Around this time, the family moved to 11 Forres Street. In 1871 John Maclaren Barclay became a full member of the RSA, an honour in which Ada would, for the rest of her life, take great pride. She would often identify herself as ‘daughter of the late J. M. Barclay, R. S. A.’.  

No major changes appear in the 1881 census. 23-year-old Ada still lives with her family at 11 Forres Street. No occupation is given for her, although her artistic career was well underway. A sketchbook now held by the RSA contains watercolour landscapes of the west of Scotland, dated to the late summer of 1874. These might be exercises by a 17-year-old Ada. She first exhibited at the RSA in 1879. In 1881 she accompanied her father on a visit to Perth during which he carried out several portrait commissions. The Perthshire Constitutional and Journal reported with pleasure that Ada was following in her father’s footsteps as a painter. Ada may have presented the copy by herself of her father’s self-portrait to Perth during this visit. However, she primarily focused on landscape painting. Her copy after Horatio McCulloch’s A Lowland River was on display at Mr Jackson’s carver and gilder’s shop in Perth and was ‘believed to be the finest copy that has yet been made’, as far as the Perthshire Constitutional and Journal was concerned.  

John Maclaren Barclay, Self-Portrait, about 1870, oil on canvas. Donated by A. F. B. Bridges, 1968
Ada Mary Barclay, John Maclaren Barclay, about 1881, oil on canvas. Gift from the artist, 1881. Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Adulthood abroad 

John Maclaren Barclay passed away in 1886 at the age of 75, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. Ada and Lucy’s mother died in November 1889.

Ada’s last work exhibited at the RSA was a painting of the Brig o’Michael in the Trossachs in 1886. Her whereabouts over the next decade are unclear. She visited Scotland again in 1902, when she presented her bust by William Brodie to the Scottish National Gallery. In her letter offering this gift, she mentions that ‘I must probably return to India where I have been for the past seven years’.  

It is unknown what exactly had motivated her to travel to India. In 1894, her sister married Albert Bridges, a British civil servant in India. Their youngest son, A F B Bridges, would later donate artworks relating to members of the Barclay family to various public institutions in Scotland. Some of them appear in this blog. Whether the sisters travelled to India together in 1894 remains unknown. 

Glimpses of Ada’s activity abroad appear in newspapers of the time. In 1906, on the occasion of Viceroy Minto’s visit to Kashmir, the daily English-language Civil and Military Gazette (Lahore) reported on an exhibition of Ada’s paintings at the museum in Lal-Mandi, Srinagar: 

‘The two which first struck our view were one of Toola Moula [Tulmulla] – afternoon light through the trees and on a house, with deep green reflection; the lucidity of the water was charming, one felt to dip one hand into it would be a pleasure – the whole composition in itself charming. The other picture was the figure of a benevolent Brahmin with a face resembling St Peter’s […]’ 

Her work appealed to European viewers. The Viceroy allegedly purchased some of her paintings from this exhibition. Queen Alexandra was also familiar with Ada’s work. When Ada returned to England in or around 1910, she was exhibiting at her studio on Redcliffe Road in London. Due to the recent death of her husband King Edward VII, the queen requested that some of Ada’s paintings be sent to Marlborough House for her to view.  

Ada Mary Barclay, At The Dal Lake, Kashmir, oil on canvas.

McTear's, The British & International Pictures Auction, 28/8/2019, lot 472

Return to Britain 

Ada also lent works to the Indian section of the 1911 Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace in London. Amidst political and social unrest and fears of the downfall of British imperialism, the Festival of Empire was an exhibition and spectacle attempting to impress on the British public the glory of their Empire and encourage potential British emigrants to the colonies. The ‘Indian Court’ was hosted in a large, domed building with a gallery and over 200 display cases. Indian artworks and objects, and works by British artists were showcased in the context of Indian history told from a British imperialist perspective. The artist and illustrator Walter Crane (1845–1915) was involved in preparing the display of landscape paintings. Ada lent eight landscapes as well as Pastel Head of a Sadu and A Scribe of Kashmir to the section ‘Paintings in Kashmir’.  

After her return from India, then, Ada found opportunities to exhibit her work – a painting of The Lake, Kew Gardens was even displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1914. Catalogues and newspaper articles of her exhibitions list mainly landscape works, but not all are depictions of Kashmir or Britain: there are also mentions of Egypt, Italy and Switzerland. In a letter of 1929 to James Caw, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, she notes: ‘I have travelled so extensively that I have seen much of the great art of the world’. It is not known exactly when or where she travelled, and how her travel was funded. A plea for financial support to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1910 reveals that she was facing difficulties on her return to Britain. She seems to have kept herself afloat by giving painting lessons and as a picture restorer. The purpose of the letter of 1929 was to ask for Caw’s help in finding work as a picture restorer.  

She seems to have lived in Newbury in Berkshire for much of the 1920s. In 1936, her death was recorded in Brighton, at an address that may have been a boarding house. Her sister Lucy, whose first husband had died in 1901, had also returned to England and married a second time. She was named heir in Ada’s will.  

Decisive success eluded Ada Barclay and her work is now not widely known or available. From the census records, birth and death certificates, newspaper articles and exhibition catalogues, and from Brodie’s bust, emerges the story of a girl who grew up to defy expectations: she never seems to have married, pursued her artistic career and never quite settled. Many aspects of Ada’s life remain a mystery. Her own voice is, for now, largely absent from her story. 

Signature from letter to James Caw, Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, February 1929

With special thanks to the Royal Scottish Academy, the National Records of Scotland, Perth Museum and Art Gallery and Perth & Kinross Council Archive for their generous help with this research.

By Liz Louis, Curator, European & Scottish Art & Portraiture, 29 November 2022