City Art Centre, Edinburgh: Mary Cameron, Life in Paint

Mary Cameron, Mrs Blair and her Borzois, 1904_0
Mary Cameron, Mrs Blair and her Borzois, 1904, oil on canvas

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2nd November – 15th March 2020

Mary Cameron: Life in Paint at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh celebrates this local artist’s creative output yet also offers some context as to why she has been forgotten in Scottish art history. Cameron faced discrimination and disapproval whilst tackling subjects considered unsuitable for a woman of her time.

Mary Cameron (1865-1921) was certainly a known artist in her lifetime, admired by male contemporaries such as John Lavery and Alexander Roche. She exhibited 54 works at the Royal Scottish Academy between 1886 and 1919 and featured in Women Painters of the World publication (1905). She was a member of the Women’s International Art Club, and had some success with solo exhibitions in the early 20th Century. In spite of this, few people today could claim that they know of her work. She seems to have disappeared from Scottish art history – although she did feature in the acclaimed exhibition Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2015.

Mary Cameron Portrait of Mary Brown Small Cameron, unknown date, oil on canvas
Mary Cameron | Portrait of Mary Brown Small Cameron | unknown date | oil on canvas


The exhibition begins with early works, including charming and accomplished portraits of family members, architectural watercolours and some rare military battle portraits. Many of these are likely to have been private commissions – some even without dates. Cameron began exhibiting at the RSA in 1886, often with sporty horse-racing scenes. Life drawing and anatomy were not available to female artists at the Academy. Cameron, already interested in horses, studied equine anatomy instead at the Royal Dick Veterinary College in Edinburgh. She also seized opportunities to study life drawing in Paris.

In 1900 she visited Madrid to study 17th century Spanish paintings at the Prado. She particularly admired the techniques of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). You can see this influence in the lighting and colour palette that Cameron brought to later portraits. Working with oil paint and canvas or paper, her brushwork is loose and vibrant, yet accomplished in its details. One of the most striking and impressive paintings in the exhibition is the large-scale portrait of her sister Mrs Blair and her Borzois (1904).

Mary Cameron- Life in Paint at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh
Mary Cameron, Life in Paint at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh


However, it is in Cameron’s bullfighting studies that we discover her talent for research, and rapport with her subjects. She was fluent in several European languages, unlike her contemporaries from the UK who could barely communicate with the locals.

These paintings, sketches and photographs of the bullfighting scenes are impactful, uncompromising and expressive, often showing the pitiful plight of the horses used in the arena – Mute Martyrs of the Bullfight (c1900) is particularly memorable. Such subject matter was frowned-upon in the UK as too controversial for any Victorian female artist, let alone the founding member of Edinburgh Ladies’ Art Club.

Mary Cameron Mute Martyrs of the Bullfight
Mary Cameron | Mute Martyrs of the Bullfight (c1900) | oil on canvas


Establishing studios in Madrid and Seville, Cameron later went on to paint large-scale compositions of traditional peasant scenes and rural landscapes. This makes up the largest collection shown in the final section of the exhibition. The artworks are well supported with photographs, text and archival material. In the accompanying illustrated book, the exhibition’s curator Dr Helen E Scott expresses the hope the exhibition will also bring greater recognition to some of Cameron’s female peers including Christina Paterson Ross, Margaret Dempster and Meg Wright.

Mary Cameron- Life in Paint at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh
Mary Cameron, Life in Paint at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh


What we can most appreciate from this exhibition is the creative output of a woman determined to make her own creative path and the influence that her story has on the struggle to legitimise and honour the artistic careers of women constantly in the shadows of their male contemporaries. Indeed, Cameron was nominated four times to become a member of the Royal Scottish Academy but the institution was still not allowing women as members, even though they were allowed to exhibit.

2 Market Street,
Edinburgh EH1 1DE

With thanks to Julie Boyne, review author.

Image: Mary Cameron – Mrs Blair and her Borzois, 1904


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