Completed London: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 20th C, Scotland: Artists and Subjects 40 Who is the sitter in this portrait by George Fiddes Watt?

Portrait of a Gentleman
Topic: Subject or sitter

A prolific portraitist, Fiddes Watt exhibited every year bar one between 1897 and 1942 at the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibitions.

He submitted this portrait as his Diploma Collection deposit in 1925, having been elected a full Academician the previous year.

It is believed to be the picture of the same title which he exhibited at the RSA Annual Exhibition in 1924. A label on the reverse indicates that it was also submitted to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters for exhibition though no date is given. The artist gave his address as 178 Cromwell Road, London. The work appears to be signed and dated 1921.

Watt has identified the sitter in just about every other portrait by him. It’s a very long shot, but it would be lovely if someone out there could help us put a name to this gentleman too.

Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The title has been updated to ‘Portrait of a Gentleman (Sir George Stegmann Gibb, 1850–1925)’ and the work dated to 1921.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Roderick Macleod,

The sitter bears more than a passing resemblance to Alexander Ure, first Baron Strathclyde, who was Lord Justice General and Scotland's senior judge until 1920, although he seems to have more hair than in other images. Alas, I have no evidence to support this suggestion.

Louis Musgrove,

He seems to be wearing tartan troos- looks a bit like Mc Ewan tartan?? Might that be a clue to identity?? As it's in a scottish location- are the people at the scottish academy able to look closely at the picture and confirm what tartan it is????

Louis Musgrove,

Have just searched for Ure Tartan- and is a bit like this one as well- lots of blue.

Osmund Bullock,

I'm not convinced those are tartan trews, Louis. If you look at the tweaked crop I'm attaching, what you see as the horizontal elements of the 'tartan' seem to continue across the jacket and its sleeve. I think they are just lines in a layer of dust or cloudy varnish.

Andy Mabbett,

Is that a book in his hand, or something else?

Jacinto Regalado,

I think it is a book, Andy, at we are looking at the spine.

Kieran Owens,

Records show that Fiddes Watt exhibited or was commissioned to paint the following works in 1921:


• Professor W. P. Patterson (in robes)
• James Cameron (Head keeper at Glen Tarr)
• Mr. James Glass


• John Gordon (of Leeds) (see attached)


• The Duke of Atholl (RA submission; in kilt, sporran and claymore)
• Sir George Gibb (RA submission)
• Sir John Lorne MacLoed (RA submission)


• Mr. R. M. Plummer (Mappin Gallery exhibition)

• September

Mr. John Melrose, C.B.E. (in civic robes)


• Viscount Ullswater (to be added to the collection in the Speaker's House)

• Sir George T. Beatson, K.C.B., K.B.E. (for the British Red Cross Society; in Colonel's uniform)

• Professor Malcolm Campbell Taylor


• 'A Portrait' (Aberdeen Artists Society)


Mr. R. Hay Robertson (commissioned by subscription; with white moustache)

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Kieran Owens,

His distinctive bejewelled cravat/tie also appears in the two right-hand-side images.

Jacinto Regalado,

Gibb looks quite convincing, albeit ours is an older one than the other images. And yes, the cravat looks the same as well.

Osmund Bullock,

That's an excellent match, Kieran, and there's no doubt in my mind you've cracked it - I was just about to ask Marion for a close-up of the neck, as I couldn't discern the nature of the tie or cravat. When you say "records show", is that a list you made from newspaper reports or did you find some other source?

Not quite sure about the book, Jacinto - perhaps it's the rough painting, but I can't make sense of what would (or should) be an edge showing paper; and the way his hand/fingers seem to be curled round suggests to me the object might be something more cylindrical. We don't need it to aid identification any more, but I'm still intrigued. Marion, could we perhaps see a higher-res close-up of that area?

Jacinto Regalado,

Gibb was associated with transport. Could he holding some sort of signalling device?

Osmund Bullock,

Ah, yes, Kieran - I see now that it was actually exhibited (no. 264) at the RA in 1921. I'd misunderstood your "May ... (RA submission)" to mean you'd found some reference from May '21 (or that it was painted or commissioned then), and that it was intended to submit it to the RA for a subsequent year - the 1921 Summer Exhibition opened on 30th April, and it must have been submitted well before then.

Re its submission to the RP at an unknown date (see intro), a 'Portrait of a Gentleman' by Fiddes Watt was exhibited (no. 47) at their annual exhibition in Jan-Feb 1924 - very likely the same work, though it's odd that the sitter was named in 1921 (RA), but anonymous in 1924 (RP & RSA). The 178 Cromwell Road address is given in both '21 & '24.

I attach the relevant catalogue entries.

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Well wowee and a huge THANK YOU!!

What a fantastic way to start the working day.

Keiran, we concur with Jacinto and Osmund that you have indeed cracked it in style, and we would be more than happy to go with the identity of our mystery gentleman as Sir George Stegmann Gibb (30 April 1850 – 17 December 1925).

Thank you too Osmund for providing extremely helpful supplementary exhibtion histories also. The apparent change in title is intriguing between RA and RP- could it have been a commission that went sour?

We too had wondered about the red object he holds and whether it may have been a tube containing some sort of certificate or degree, however it doesn't seem to extend long enough behind his hand for this.

Re the "tartan trews" we agree that this is an effect caused by the play of light across the painted surface picking out irregularities.

We are happy to conclude this discussion and will submit an amended title for the work as Portrait of a Gentleman (Sir George Stegmann Gibb (1850–1925)).

With many thanks again for all your interest and input.

Alison Golding,

As suggested by Jacinto, I think the object being held could be a railway fusee.

Well that's a first amongst the devices that feature in any of our portraits Alison - how very fascinating, and thanks Jacinto for having initially suggested a signalling device (apologies for not having acknowledged in last post).

Kieran Owens,

Osmund, all of the 1921 references above - bar those for Sir George S. Gibb and Sir John Lorne MacLoed - were extracted from a sequential analysis of the occurrences of the words "Fiddes Watt" in the BNA for that year. The only other source for the search was the 1921 RA catalogue, where the names of Gibb and McLeod were located.

Of one of Watt's several works entitled "Portrait of a Gentleman", the Aberdeen Press & Journal, of Friday 18th April 1924, described it, in its review of the Royal Scottish Academy exhibition, as "a figure in tobacco-brown velvet that lacks nothing but its anonymity."

The Scotsman, of Thursday 11th March 1926, reported that amongst artworks added to the Royal Scottish Academy's collection was ""Portrait of a Gentleman", diploma work by Fiddes Watt, R.S.A."

If all of the above are the same painting, it had been knocking around for five years before entering the RSA collection. Is that likely?

Although also the son of an Alexander Gibb, and the youngest of his parents' eight children, Sir George Gibb is not a brother nor seemingly too close a relation (if any) of the Scottish artist siblings William Gibb (1839 – 1929) or Robert Gibb (1845 - 1932). His grandfather was the civil engineer John Gibb (1776 - 1850):{LPARENTHESES} engineer)

Grant, thank you for these further nuggets.

With regard to Diploma Collection deposits, we would not be troubled by the work being at least 5 years old on deposit; it would not be the first instance of an earlier work ending up as the Diploma work.

Our 'The Cribbage Players' by Walter Grieve is a case in point. Shown at the RSA Annual Exhib in 1920, it was purchased, then bought back by Grieve many years later on the death of the original purchaser, and accepted as his Diploma Collection deposit in 1933

The theory behind the deposit is that the Member is represented by a work which reflects their practise. Many are outstanding in this regard, others maybe less so.

The only other constraint is in the time restriction between date of election, and date of deposit.

Kieran Owens,

Marion, could a his-res image of the red object being held by the sitter be posted, please?

Well done Kieran for cracking the code on that one. As temporarily wearing the group leader hat for 20th-century portraits I would be content for this to wrap up whenever Art UK are ready, though let's leave it open a bit to see if the 'held object' question can be better resolved.

The other curiosity is what the circumstances of the portrait were. Gibb must have sat for it but who was the commissioner, and even if Watt asked him to do so (i.e. perhaps because they knew each other, though I have no idea if they did) what was his intention for the result? It doesn't look like a picture any commissioner -be it Gibb or anyone else - might have had reason to reject, or the sort of thing one would expect to sell to an unconnected third party on exhibition; and if conceived as a Scottish artist's gift of a distinguished Scot to a Scottish institution, then it's far from clear it was, given it did not go expressly and quickly to the RSA on that basis. Other places (e.g Aberdeen University as Gibb's alma mater or the Scottish national collection) might also have been more likely destinations if that was the original aim. That aspect may now simply be unanswerable.

Kieran Owens,

Watt's connect to Gibb might have come through the railway world. On the 26th August 1903 Watt married Jane Isabella Grant Willox, an art teacher at Peterhead Academy and the youngest daughter of William Willox of Park, Lonmay, a farmer in the Buchan area of Aberdeenshire. Jane's older brother William Willox (1857 - 1828) was a noted railway engineer, and had been Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Railway. This is just a conjecture, but I hope a not unreasonable one.

Watt's portrait of Charles Colin MacRae, JP, Chairman, Railway Debenture and General Trust Company, is also to be found on ArtUK. He also painted Sir Charles Bine Renshaw, Chairman of the Caledonian Railway Company in 1913.

A good biographical overview of Watt's life, from the ODNB, can be read here:

Kieran Owens,

I believe that the above-referenced portrait is a relatively modern work, probably based on a photograph.

Kieran Owens,

Perhaps ArtUK has a contact at the London Transport Museum or at the National Railway Museum who might be able to identify the object, should it have any significance to their histories.

Returning to a previous idea, even though clearly not a single 'tube', though possibly two, one with a gilt rim and perhaps a white tassle of some sort, it certainly reminds me of the red shagreen or shagreen-effect paper which often covers the tubes for honorary degrees or containers for other awards. Gibb was knighted in 1904 so it would seem a bit late as a c. 1921 portrait for it to be the box of the badge of a knight bachelor (which he is not wearing) but perhaps it alludes to something else he received later.

Given he is in fairly formal dress I'm not so taken with the idea of it being a railway fusee quite apart from it looking more 'blingy' than a one-use pyrotechnic flare -which is what that is.

Osmund Bullock,

I agree with Pieter that this is not a railway flare - apart from anything else it is not long enough. And while such an item might conceivably be a suitable symbol for a man who had actually worked on the tracks at some point in his career, Gibb (unlike his father, grandfather and nephew) was not an engineer but a manager, pure and simple, with a background in law - and besides, his substantive role in railway administration had ceased in 1910, though towards the end of his business career (1919-22) he became an adviser to the board of his old company, the North Eastern Railway, on their dealings with government.

I'm attaching his Times obituary and DNB biography in case anything there suggests a possible commissioner of the portrait. Interestingly his last major railway job was as (inter alia) chairman and managing director of the Metropolitan District Railway, which perhaps strengthens Kieran's hypothesis of a connection between Fiddes Watt and Gibb via Watt's brother-in-law William Willox, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Railway. It's not quite as strong as it sounds, though, as my understanding (it's complicated) is that in the early C20th the Metropolitan Railway and the (Metropolitan) District Railway were not the same thing, despite both being London underground companies. Another point of note from the DNB is that Gibb was known for sartorial eccentricity, wearing a tweed suit to the office in the 1890s. This is much bolder than it sounds to modern ears - for a gentleman the distinction between appropriate 'town' and 'country' dress was really 'de rigeur'. When I first saw the portrait I was very surprised by the brown velvet jacket & waistcoat and strange neck-tie arrangement - I quite genuinely thought the sitter must be either American/Continental, or at least a very Bohemian Brit.

Osmund Bullock,

Though rather off-topic, I see no reason to suspect that the Estella Canziani portrait is a later, posthumous work. She was a prolific artist from the first decade of the century onwards, exhibiting hundreds of pantings including portraits in both watercolours and oils at many institutional and commercial venues - the latter included Walker's Gallery in New Bond Street (256 exhibited works), which specialized in commissioned portraits. And although the portrait of Gibb looks quite modern, Canziani was already painting in this colourful and meticulously-detailed style well before the First World War. I note, too, that the sitter is wearing the same brown velvet suit that appears (with different trousers) in ours - a detail that would have been hard to guess from a black and white photograph.

Good morning all, and thank you for your on-going attention to our newly identified painting. We appreciate the further background references.

The second portrait is great to see, even if only to reinforce the identity of the sitter., and the presence again of the brown velvet jacket and Osmund's observations regarding the dress etiquette for gentlemen is most fascinating.

Returning to the object being held by Gibb, thanks to Marion's enhanced detail, we would concur that it is perhaps not a railway fuse after all (we think satisfactorily dismissed by the various counter-arguments posted). However, we are inclined also to now retract our earlier suggestion of it being a canister for a degree of some sort. We read the held object as being made, possibly of a stiff paper, or even fabric. There is a definite double roll, defined by clear shadows. If you follow these we believe it to be a single object rather than possibly two cylinders. If the white marks are indeed depicting a tassle one thinks of a cord binding to an order of service for some official event, however it would be less likely that such a souvenir would be so roughly treated as to be rolled up. Equally however it is too stiff and regular in form for it to be a piece of fabric, such as a suitably dandy handkerchief. Could it simply be an artistic device to resolve a compositional quandary? It certainly helps anchor the composition and acts as a foil to the warm background hues of the background at upper right.

Keiran's suggestion is worth following up with the London Transport Museum or at the National Railway Museum, even if only to dismiss the identity of the object as a railway fuse, and we will get onto that.

Kieran Owens,

As usual, Osmund, you are bang on the money. The Canziani portrait was painted in March 1911. See the attached newspaper extracts, from the Islington Gazette, of Wednesday 29th March 1911, and as reprinted in the Pittsburgh Press of the 18th April 1911. It was not exhibited by Canziani at the RA in 1911, 1912, or 1914.

Osmund Bullock,

Well, it's my turn to blush, Kieran. But as usual it is you who has the dogged perseverance to find the evidence - I had tried and failed! How interesting to see that Gibb's brown velvet jacket was something of a personal signature - that alone justifies our tangent, I feel.

Further to the identification of the object which Sir George holds in his hand, we have been in touch with our colleagues at the National Railway Museum in York who have send the following helpful response, which would appear to firmly rule out he mystery object being a railway fusee;

"As for what he is holding in his hand, I don’t think it will be a railway fusee because as far as I know they were not used on the railways in this country, in fact we don’t even have an example in the Collection, we use detonators that are placed on the track to warn the driver.

It could possibly be a book but could be wrong."

We have followed up be asking whether, if it is a book (and as previously discussed possibly a rolled soft cover publication) it might relate to a specific publication which Gibb may have been responsible for.

Our friends in York are, like most of us, working remotely but have promised to delve into Sir George's career to see whether there might be any hints which could help narrow the possibilities once their research unit reopens.

Despite the fact that the item (book/scroll etc) that Sir George Gibb is holding in this portrait continues to be elusive, the original question as to the identity of the sitter has been conclusively answered and the Art UK and collection title already amended. Rather than leave this discussion hanging around on such a small point I'm inclined as 'pro tem' 20th c. portraits co-ordinator to suggest we leave that with the collection and close this stream down, with thanks to all who have pitched in on it.
What does seem clear is that this is a fairly formal portrait of Gibb and was the one that Watt exhibited as no. 264 at the RA in 1921. The 'red item' may have some relevance to the occasion that the portrait marks, or the body that commissioned it, or both, but no-one has yet been able to suggest what that or those connections might be.

If the RSA does resolve the matter, they can add it to the online description, or otherwise make a signal via Art UK that it has clarified. I hope that sounds a sensible conclusion.

Mark Wilson,

The other mystery is who commissioned the portrait and for whom and why it got 'left on the shelf'. It looks a little too formal to be meant for the family and you can't see why it would have been rejected by them. But when it was commissioned, presumably in 1920 or before, according to the DNB, Gibb's only business appointment was as an adviser (1919-22) to his old employer the North Eastern Railway. And they already had the Canziani portrait of him.

The only possibility I can think of is that it was originally commissioned relating to Gibb's most significant work in the previous decade - as Chairman of the Road Board, from its formation in 1910 to its amalgamation into the new Ministry of Transport in 1919. It might be thought that such an important role should be commemorated, but neither the Board nor its Chairman were popular with the road lobby or the bureaucracy.

Gibb and Fiddes Watt may have known each other not just through the later's railway links, but because Gibb's wife was the daughter of an artist, James William Garrett Smith. So maybe Gibb got his fellow Scot to paint it on the understanding that the new Ministry would want it and they decided they didn't and weren't going to pay for.

This might explain its later exhibition without a designated sitter, especially if the two men fell out. But Fiddes Watt might still have hoped to find a purchaser for it, though.

He may have seen a chance in a later role of Gibb's as Chairman of the Oriental Telephone Company. This doesn't seem to have been limited to the occasional meeting as you might expect. According to the Hong Kong LegCo minutes of 21 May 1925 (

[...] it was agreed that it was to the interest of all parties that Sir George Gibb should come to the Colony to settle matters on the spot. He arrived in January last and after protracted negotiations he and Mr. Taggart signed a provisional agreement

Quite an undertaking for a man in his 70s at that time. So with such an activist Chairman it might be hoped that they would want a portrait of him. Could the mysterious red object be something with a Chinese connection added latter to make it more relevant?

Any such hope would have vanished when Gibb died in December the same year, and Fiddes Watt might have decide to cut his losses by making it his Diploma Collection piece.

All speculation of course, though it's possible there might be something in personal papers.

Thanks for that addition, which adds a possible link between Gibb and Watt through the former's wife Jane being daughter of an artist (J.W. Garrett Smith) who may have known him, as well as Watt's wife, also Jane (nee Willox), being sister of the railway engineer William Willox who almost certainly knew Gibb.

We now know the portrait was shown at the RA in 1921 (no. 264). It may also be the one shown again at Burlington House as 'Portrait of a Gentleman' (no. 47) at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition in Jan.-Feb. 1924, but only if the same canvas as also later shown under that title at the RSA annual show of that year, in which its identity appears to be confirmed by the 'Aberdeen Press & Journal' description of it (on 18 April 1924) as 'a figure in tobacco-brown velvet that lacks nothing but its anonymity'. That seems to be a fair description of the sitter's jacket and waistcoat fabric, and the discussion has also noted that Gibb was a man with an individualistic style in dress for his time. Press note from 'The Scotsman' of 11 March 1926 - also produced by Kieran on 29 /7/20 - next reported that a 'Portrait of a Gentleman' by Watt had just been received by the RSA collection as his diploma work and it was certainly this canvas. It is the RA record and other comparative images that primarily fix the identification of Gibb as sitter, though beyond reasonable doubt it was also the portrait exhibited at the RP and RSA shows of 1924, whatever the reason for Gibb's name being dropped for the purpose. We do not yet know why, what prompted the painting originally (in about 1920) and -if a commission- why it was apparently left with Watt to re-exhibit and then present to the RSA as a diploma piece. The other remaining minor puzzle is what Gibb holds in his right hand. There is no sign answers on these matters are going to emerge any time soon so, for now, and because the original question of sitter identity has been resolved, I repeat the suggestion that the present discussion stream winds up.

We are delighted that the primary objective of our initial enquiry has been so wonderfully and convincingly solved. Our internal records, and the ArtUK record have been updated accordingly in line with the new identification.

The additional information is of great interest and helps fill out the record, and we are most grateful to everyone who has posted and contributed to this discussion - thank you.

Whilst the true identity/significance of the mystery object in the sitter's hand has so far eluded us, we have had some helpful thoughts on what it could be, and have been able to eliminate others as what it definitely can't be.

We are happy to concur with the Moderator's summary and to bring this discussion to a close.