A life dedicated to art | Flora Macdonald Reid

Flora Macdonald Reid (1860-c.1940) was a prolific artist who exhibited regularly in shows across Britain and on the continent.  She dedicated her life to her art, choosing to remain unmarried and retain her financial independence.

Flora Macdonald Reid, self portrait detail.

She was born in Islington, London to Scottish parents who moved the family back to Edinburgh when she was an infant. During these formative years, she received some instruction from her elder brother John Robertson Reid (1851-1926) and attended classes held at the Trustees’ Academy. Her early aptitude for painting meant that she began exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy aged 16.

In 1881, she moved back to London with her brother and sister Lizzie, who was also an artist. They lived in Haverstock Hill, Hampstead. This neighbourhood was popular with artists including George Clausen and John Pettie. Through the latter, the Reids likely became acquainted with James Guthrie who trained under Pettie. Living in this exciting artistic milieu together with her extensive travels in France, Belgium and Norway, Reid was strongly influenced by the contemporary trend for rural naturalism.

Flora Macdonald Reid, Fieldworker, 1883. © Fleming Collection

This style which was notably associated with influential French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage rejected sentimental and highly finished depictions of rural life, choosing instead to focus on everyday realities, painted out of doors, in a broad and expressive manner.

In the early 1880s, examples of his work could be seen in several of the commercial art galleries across London.

The impact of his style can be seen in a number of Reid’s works which feature agricultural labourers.

In her later work, she retained something of the Victorian taste for incident in the selection of her subject matter and the titles.

Thus, in her frequent depictions of marketplaces her focus is on the sharing of news, gossiping and storytelling, inviting the viewer to imagine the nature of the exchange.

The picturesque town of Bruges became a favourite setting for such works.

Flora Macdonald Reid Market Scene (Bruges) 1895

The Market Scene, Bruges, 1895 is a typical example. 

Perspective is suggested through subtle shifts in handling from finely realised details in the foreground to much broader brushstrokes in the background.

She had a distinctively blue and green colour palette. 

These compositions almost invariably feature a female figure in profile with her face turned away from the viewer, guiding the eye into the scene.

Flora Macdonald Reid Bruges Probably 1890s

Her works were shown in exhibitions in Scotland, London and Paris.

In 1900, her painting La Charité was awarded a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle

Despite this success, some critics claimed she imitated her brother’s style too closely and that her market-scene works had become predictable.

Indeed, a reviewer of the Royal Academy exhibition in 1913 claimed “when we have seen one of her pictures we have, in a certain sense, seen all.”

The struggle to achieve professional recognition was a persistent challenge for female artists at this time. Reid was involved in initiatives such as the Society for Women Artists, London that aimed to address some of the inequality faced by women. Personally, Reid was able to command prices for her work that were comparable to similar scale paintings by her male contemporaries.

The Market Scene, Bruges, 1895 was purchased by Reverend Thomas Paterson (1864-1917) and was retained by his family until it was formally gifted to the National Galleries of Scotland in 2017, marking 100 years since Paterson’s death.

In order to conserve and show off this addition to the Scottish collection to its best advantage, the work has been completely reframed and is on display now at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

By Dr Freya Spoor, Assistant Curator, 'Celebrating Scotland's Art': The Scottish National Gallery Project