Born in Aberdeen in 1880 and best known for his oil portraits, John Macdonald Aiken served a six-year apprenticeship as a draughtsman in Aberdeen, London and Florence, becoming head of GrayÂ’s School of Art in 1911 and remaining in the role until 1914.

After his return from serving in the First World War, Aiken devoted himself full-time to painting and was awarded the silver medal at the esteemed Paris Salon in 1923 for his portrait of Harry Townend, then the director of Aberdeen Art Gallery. This large-scale work may be considered Aiken’s masterwork – a flamboyant portrait brimming with confidence and character. Depicting Aiken and his wife, Isabella ‘Bell’ Walker Calder, the portrait is likely to be the work exhibited at the Royal Academy and Aberdeen Artists Society under the title ‘Portrait Group’. Stylistically, the painting has echoes of the ‘swagger portrait’ – an ostentatious mode of portraiture commissioned by prominent individuals to project the sitter’s desired public image, originating with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck in the early 17th century and popularised at the end of the 19th century by John Singer Sargent. In this full-length portrait, Aiken presents himself with assertiveness bordering on arrogance: his eyes lock the viewer’s gaze, trousers tucked rakishly into his socks, while his wife at his side lifts her coat to reveal a hint of ankle. Yet the portrait is not entirely bravado and posturing: the meticulous rendering of the female figure’s striped dress and lace shawl, sensitive portrayal of facial expressions. The still-life detail of the jar and paintbrushes on the sideboard all show the influence of Dutch Realist painting. Portrait of the Artist and his Wife (1910) is the most significant work by Aiken – and the only one from his early period – to enter the Aberdeen Art Gallery collection, joining seven oil works and four prints from the artist’s later career.


Calder Family, Aberdeen to 1977; Atholl Antiques, 1977-78; Colin Wood Antiques, 1978; sold Sotheby’s, London, 1978; purchased by Spink, 1978-1998; Daniel Katz (private collection), 1998 – 2008; The Fine Art Society, 2008 onwards.

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