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The Scottish Nation

GEIKIE, WALTER, an eminent artist, the eldest son of Archibald Geikie, perfumer, Edinburgh, was born in Charles Street, George Square, of that city, November 9, 1795. A nervous fever with which he was attacked when nearly two years old, destroyed his auricular organs, and brought upon him the calamity of being deaf and dumb for life. He was nine years of age before he was taught the letters of the alphabet, but so great was his desire to learn that he was soon able to read, and perused with avidity every book that came in his way. He was next taught writing and arithmetic, and soon after was sent to the institution of Mr. Braidwood for the instruction of the deaf and dumb. So great was his progress there, that that gentleman was soon induced to employ him more as a monitor than a pupil. His turn for the art which he afterwards practised with so much dexterity was first manifested, whilst he was yet a child, by his infantine attempts to cut in paper representations of objects which came within his observation. From his earliest youth he began also to sketch figures with chalk on floors or walls, and gradually advanced to the employment of paper and pencils. When about fourteen years old he was sent to study under Mr. Patrick Gibson, and in May 1812 he was admitted into the drawing academy established by the Hon. The Commissioners of the Board of Trustees for the encouragement of Scottish manufactures; which has been the nursery of so many artists who have done honour to Scotland. Although the Board did not then possess the magnificent gallery of casts from ancient statues, busts, &c., which it has since collected, yet Geikie enjoyed the high advantage of drawing under the direction of Mr. Graham, who then held the chair of its valuable school. His favourite pursuit, however, was sketching from real objects in the open air, and all those figures r groups that peculiarly pleased his fancy were immediately transferred to his portfolio. Indeed so great was the facility and skill with which he used his pencil out of doors, that it was by no means unusual for him to catch the contour of odd figures or of remarkable features, whilst walking by the side of the originals in the streets. An amusing story is told of a porter in the Grassmarket of a peculiar appearance in figure and physiognomy, who, aware of his desire to take his likeness, contrived to elude him on all occasions, when he saw him approaching. One crowded market day, however, Geikie, determined to attain his object, followed the doomed porter wherever he went, until at last, when the market began to thin, the latter lost all patience, and threatened and abused the young artist with great fury both of words and action. The first were lost on the poor deaf lad, and although these was no mistaking the meaning shake of the angry porter’s fist, he proceeded to the exercise of his pencil with the utmost enthusiasm, but was soon obliged to fly from the scene, pursued by the porter. He took refuge in an open stair. His pursuer halted in the street opposite, and placing his arms behind his back, waited there at his leisure to catch the young artist when he should emerge from his hiding place. From a window in the stair Geikie had a perfect view of his subject, and a few touches of his rapid pencil speedily transferred him to his sketchbook. When the porter’s patience was exhausted, he moved slowly away, and thus enabled the imprisoned artist to find his way home, unscathed, with his purpose accomplished. This individual makes a conspicuous figure among the characters to be found in his etchings.

      Geikie’s collection of sketches of figures and of groups is immense. Many of these were disposed of by private sale after his death, when part of them were purchased by Sir James Gibson Craig, and the greater number by Mr. Bindon Blood. Although he attempted landscape painting, he was not very successful in that department of the art, and ultimately confined himself to it in pictures where it was subsidiary to his groups and figures. As his love for Edinburgh was always great, his subjects of this description were chiefly taken in and about its environs. There was not a hill or eminence in the vicinity, from which he did not, at one time or other, make an extensive panoramic view of the city and surrounding scenery, and that with a degree of accuracy and minuteness which few could have equalled. To oil-painting he was much attached, but his colouring in general was cold and inharmonious. Mr. Andrew Wilson, who succeeded Mr. Graham in the chair of the academy of the Board of manufactures, gave him many private instructions, but from some defect inherent in Geikie himself, could never impart to him such a knowledge of colours as might have insured to him proficiency in that part of his art. A few of his pictures, indeed, were less objectionable as to colour, especially those in which he confined himself to groups of figures, and avoided landscape. Among these are ‘All Hallow Fair,’ ‘The Grassmarket,’ and ‘Itinerant Fiddlers,’ which were painted for the earl of Hopetoun, and are now in the collection at Hopetoun house.

      In 1831 Geikie was elected an associate of the Scottish Academy, and in 1834 a fellow of the same body. His etching powers were equal to his expertness in drawing, and both were sufficient to compensate him for his deficiency in colouring. His first etching was that of John Barleycorn, which was executed as a tailpiece to a ballad of that name, in a collection of Scottish ballads published by Mr. David Laing. The first fourteen plates that he executed he published on his own account, but he afterwards sold them to a person of the trade. Of his later etchings he was very proud, and even whilst labouring under those fits of despondency to which he was sometimes subject, he used to say of them, that those to whom they should fall after his death would make more by them than he should ever do during his life, a foreboding, says his biographer, which was but too truly verified. Notwithstanding, adds the same authority, of the absence of any touches of the beau ideal, and of all grace from his figures, and especially from his women, and laying aside his faults of colouring, he is entitled, by his other qualities, and particularly by the broad humour which he exhibits, to be classed as the Teniers or the Ostade of the Scottish school.

      Geikie’s disposition was remarkably amiable, and his temper patient in the extreme. During the later years of his life, the Bible was his principal study, and his favourite authors were Doddridge’s Harmony and Exposition of the New Testament, and Barnes’ Notes thereon. With two of his friends, who, like himself, were deaf and dumb, he established a religious meeting for persons unhappily labouring under the same infirmities as themselves, to whom he was in the habit of delivering, on Sundays, sermons or lectures, of his own composition, and explaining the Scriptures, by means of the usual signs on the fingers, which are employed by the deaf and dumb as a medium of verbal communication. His understanding was singularly acute, and his perception surprisingly quick. He was most remarkable for comic humour, and for his talent in displaying it, while his powers of mimicry were of the highest order. Warm-hearted and affectionate, this peculiarly gifted artist was particularly attached to his relatives. He painted his last picture, which was only finished six days before his death, with one of his little nephews constantly seated on his knee. The day after finishing it, he took to his bed, and soon sank into a state of insensibility, from which he could not be roused. He died on the 1st August 1837, at the age of 41, and was interred in the Greyfriars churchyard of his native city. For these details we are indebted to the Biographical Introduction to his Etchings, by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, baronet.

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