Bessie MacNicol, The Lilac Sun Bonnet, 1899, purchased with funds from the Cowan Smith, MacDougall and Treaty of Union Bequests, 2024. Credit: Neil Hanna
Bessie MacNicol, The Lilac Sun Bonnet, 1899, purchased with funds from the Cowan Smith, MacDougall and Treaty of Union Bequests, 2024. Credit: Neil Hanna

National Galleries of Scotland celebrates acquisition of rare work by ‘Glasgow Girl’

The National Galleries of Scotland has acquired a rare work by ‘Glasgow Girl’ Bessie MacNicol.

Many of MacNicol’s works were dispersed or lost following her tragic death in the late stages of pregnancy, aged just 34. In recent years there has been strong competition to acquire the precious few artworks by this talented artist which remain in private collections.

The Lilac Sunbonnet is a joyous painting of a farm girl in the countryside, dressed in light, summery fabrics. MacNicol successfully captures a feeling of spontaneity and playfulness.

Her lilac-coloured sunbonnet, blonde hair and light-coloured clothing are skilfully illuminated by bright, dappled sunlight.

The Lilac Sunbonnet joins two very different works by MacNicol in the collection, a small oil painting, Portrait of a Lady (‘Phyllis in Town’) which is also on display at the new Scottish galleries and a fabulous watercolour, Three Ladies of Fashion, which probably depicts a milliner’s shop.

‘Bessie MacNicol’s light-filled painting The Lilac Sunbonnet is like a dose of vitamin D on a dreich day. It instantly lifts the spirits. We are absolutely delighted to add this lovely painting to our new Scottish galleries at the National, ‘Dr Patricia Allerston from the National Galleries of Scotland said.

MacNicol may have been inspired by the 1894 runaway bestseller, The Lilac Sunbonnet, by Scottish novelist Samuel Rutherford Crockett.

Set in the Galloway countryside, the story tells of the romance between a prim divinity student called Ralph Peden and the golden-haired Winsome Charteris, granddaughter of a local farmer and owner of the lilac sunbonnet. Crockett’s book was hugely popular in the 1890s and even inspired costumes at the fancy dress parties that were fashionable at this time.

It must have captured the imagination of MacNicol, who loved costume and fashion – an interest she inherited from her grandfather, a skilled tailor.

MacNicol studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1887 to 1893 under the groundbreaking directorship of Fra Newbery. This is where she met fellow artists Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Jessie Keppie and Katharine Cameron, part of the fascinating and diverse group of women artists and designers that has become known as the Glasgow Girls.

In 1893 MacNicol exhibited at the Royal Academy in London before undertaking further studies at the Académie Colarossi in Paris.

Contributing almost annually to the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts exhibitions, she began to attract attention and also had her own studio, on St Vincent Street at the heart of Glasgow’s thriving art world, in the 1890s.

Her friend, the art critic Percy Bate wrote: ‘Art lovers at once saw that in Bessie MacNicol a new artistic force had arrived in Glasgow’. From 1896 MacNicol made several visits to the artistic town of Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway, where she became friends with Glasgow Boy EA Hornel.

An established Glasgow-based artist, MacNicol exhibited internationally – in Ghent, Munich, Vienna, Pittsburgh and St Louis – before her early death in 1904.

At the time of her funeral, the Glasgow Herald noted: ‘So brilliant was her work and of such promise that it is felt that her premature death has robbed Scotland of one who would have left a name worthy to rank with the best of her artist sons.’ In 1908 the new director of the National Galleries of Scotland, James Caw, considered MacNicol to be ‘probably the most accomplished lady-artist that Scotland has yet produced’.

The Lilac Sunbonnet by Bessie MacNicol is a fantastic addition to Scotland’s amazing national collection of art,’ Anne Lyden, Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland said.

‘It’s a beautiful painting by an incredibly talented Scottish artist, and we’re really happy that everyone will be able to enjoy it for free at the National.

‘We’re proud to continue to increase representation of works by women across our galleries, and have been making a considerable effort to acquire works by a diverse range of artists.

‘These important artworks mean we can not only look back on Scotland’s past and remember our history, but we can also look to the future and the generations that will be inspired by artists such as Bessie MacNicol.’


Read more Culture stories here.

Subscribe to read the latest issue of Scottish Field.