James Giles is a more important artist than his present reputation would have one believe, indeed one of the most authoritative recent surveys of Scottish art, Scottish Painting 1460-1990 by Duncan Macmillan, does not mention the artist. This may be because the majority of his important paintings were private commissions. The present picture is more substantial than anything by Giles, offered on the market within living memory. It was not exhibited in the artist¹s lifetime and seems to have never left Aberdeenshire until it was acquired recently. The composition¹s ambition and technical virtuosity will surprise many.
Giles was born in Aberdeen in 1801. His father was a calico designer, an artist and an art teacher. By the age of fifteen Giles had also begun to take pupils and by nineteen was teaching public drawing classes. In 1823 he left Scotland for the Continent stopping first in Paris where he is said to have been a pupil of Regnault, though this left no mark on his style. He made his way to Italy by Antibes and the south of France and divided his time between copying Old Masters and producing en plein air watercolours, which display a remarkable perception of light and an interest in weather conditions and cloud formation. In Rome he stayed out late to catch the moonlight effects in the Borghese Gardens and there are a number of studies of skies made in Venice, Florence and elsewhere.
Giles first commission on his return from Italy in 1827 came from the Earl of Kintore (1794-1844). It was for a family group and was swiftly followed by a second commission to paint Keith Hall, for which the sketch was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1830. The Earl of Kintore and William Gordon of Fyvie were amongst Giles’ close friends, who on his return from Italy in 1827, introduced him to Aberdeenshire society and most importantly to the Earl of Aberdeen (1781-1860), whose patronage and support was enormously significant throughout Giles’ career.
He received many commissions from Aberdeen including The Castles of Aberdeenshire Series, which includes 85 views in watercolour painted between 1838 and 1855. Giles was also a landscape gardener and designed the gardens and terrace at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire. In 1852 Aberdeen became Prime Minister but his involvement in the Crimean War led his government into defeat in 1855. In Giles’ obituary it is quoted that so close was his friendship with Aberdeen that Giles and Hyslop [the forester at Haddo House] ruled the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister ruled the nation. The connection with Haddo House brought Giles in to contact with intellectual and aristocratic circles. It was a great meeting point for statesmen, actors, artists and writers. In 1848, he was presented to Queen Victoria, who later became his patron, for whom he painted a series of watercolours of old Balmoral Castle and its grounds. Lord Aberdeen became heir to the remaining lease at Balmoral on the death of his brother, Sir Robert Gordon, in 1847. On the strength of these watercolours, Victoria took over the lease. She went on to commission eight watercolours of the interior of Balmoral. In 1855 Giles assisted the Prince Consort in laying out and planting the gardens of the new Balmoral. It was not without complaint, however, that Giles took this work. He received the sum of £315 for 115 days work of 12 or 13 hours each. Giles wrote in his diary, 'I would rather not work to royalty. I never made anything but a loss to it.’
Giles’ numerous commissions and his design work for gardens and parks probably distracted him from the distinction at easel painting of which he knew he was capable. 'I have the feeling about me of doing something great if I could get it out.’ It is difficult to think of an artist working in Britain in the 1820s who could have executed more successfully The Earl of Kintore's commission for Keith Hall than James Giles.