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Significant Scots
Walter Geikie


GEIKIE, WALTER.—It has often been observed, that the Scottish national character abounds in contradictions. Poetical though it be, it has never produced a Milton; and in spite of all its wisdom and sagacity, it has not as yet exhibited a first-rate statesman. The same inconsistency is perceptible in the fine arts; so that, in spite of the imaginative and the humorous, by which that character is distinguished, Scotland has been barren of caricaturists. From the time of Hogarth to that of H. B., England has so plentifully abounded with such artists as to be eminently the land of caricature delineation; but Scotland, with all its shrewd observation, its perception of the ludicrous, and quiet love of fun, which constitute the chief elements in this department of pictorial art, has as yet produced no specimens of it except those of poor Walter Geikie—the very man, too, be it observed, from whom, on account of his physical disqualifications, productions of this kind were least to be expected.

Walter Geikie, whose droll and homely sketches are to be found upon the table of every Edinburgh drawing-room, was the son of Mr. Archibald Geikie, perfumer, and was born in Charles Street, George Square, Edinburgh, on the 9th November, 1795. Before he had completed his second year, he was attacked by a dangerous ear disease; and although he recovered, it was at the expense of being deaf and dumb for life. It was too much the fashion at this time in Scotland to consider dumbies as incapable of education, so that they were generally allowed to go at large, and vegetate as they best might; but happily, Walter was the son of a pious and intelligent father, who had a better sense of his paternal responsibility: he taught his bereaved boy the alphabet, so that the latter not only learned to read, but to understand what he read. Writing and arithmetic followed, in which Walter showed himself an apt scholar. When he had thus acquired the rudiments of education, it happened, fortunately for him, that Mr. Braidwood, the successful teacher of the deaf and dumb, was invited to Edinburgh, to open an institution there, and Geikie became one of his earliest pupils. In this new school the boy’s proficiency was so rapid that he was soon employed as a monitor. He showed also that he was no mere common-place learner, for he was in the practice of writing down extracts of the passages that best pleased him in the authors whose works he perused. While he was thus storing his mind with knowledge, and qualifying himself, notwithstanding his defects, for a life of usefulness, his path was determined.

While yet a child, he had been in the practice of cutting out representations of the objects that struck him on paper; afterwards he had attempted to portray them with chalk on floors and walls; and rising higher still in pictorial art, he at length betook himself to the use of the pencil. He did not, however, satisfy himself, like other young sketchers, with merely copying the pictures of others: instead of this, he would be satisfied with nothing short of the original object; and therefore he often roamed about the suburbs of Edinburgh, or among the fields, transferring into his note-book whatever most pleased his fancy. This was the form of language in which he found he could best express himself, and therefore it is not to be wondered at that he should cultivate it so carefully. At the age of fourteen he was sent to learn drawing by regular rule, under Mr. Patrick Gibson, and such was his progress, that in 1812 he was admitted a pupil of the Academy of Drawing, established for the encouragement of Scottish manufactures, where he had for his preceptor Mr. Graham, the teacher of Allan and Wilkie.

By this course of training the future profession of Walter Geikie was confirmed. He was to be an artist; and it remained to be seen in what department his excellence was to consist. It was not certainly in painting, for he soon discovered that his attempts in oil were decidedly inferior to those of others in warmth and harmony of colouring; and although his "Itinerant Fiddlers," "All Hallow Fair," and the "Grassmarket," now in the collection at Hopetoun House, were the best specimens of his painting in oil, they scarcely exceed the efforts of a mere fourth-rate artist. It was in sketching that he best succeeded, while the subjects of his preference were not the beautiful or the sublime, but the homely and the ludicrous. He would rather sketch a pig-sty than a palace, and an odd face had more attraction in his eyes than all the ideal beauty of the Venus de Medicis. It was upon this predilection that he acted. He hunted about in quest of singular visages, at which, with his ready pencil, he would take a flying shot as he passed along the street; and as such commodities are by no means scarce in Edinburgh, his collection was soon both rich and various. This kind of sportsmanship, however, was not without its dangers, for those who were best fitted for the artist’s purposes were generally the least disposed to have their effigies perpetuated. One amusing incident of this kind is related by his biographer. Geikie had become desperately enamoured of the turned-up nose, rhinoceros upper lip, and pot-belly of a porter of the Grass-market, and longed to appropriate them in such a way as not to impoverish their lawful owner. But the porter, who had seen his hungry look, and suspected his purpose, had continued to dodge him, until one day he found himself all but fixed upon the artist’s paper. Enraged at the discovery, he stormed, swore, and threatened; but Geikie, who was in ecstasy with his rich attitudes, and could not hear the threats, continued the drawing, until he saw his model rushing upon him like a maddened bull in the arena. He took to his heels, but was so hotly pursued that he had to take refuge in a common stair; and the porter, thinking that his tormentor was housed, resolved to await his coming forth. Geikie, in the meantime, who was watching every movement through a dingy window in the stair, contrived to finish his sketch, and crown it with the last touch. But how to get out when his work was finished! This seemed beyond the power of strategy, for there stood his merciless enemy on the watch; and there he remained for hours. Some lucky chance at last called away the bearer of burdens, and Geikie stole from his concealment when he found the coast clear. He had caught the porter, and saved his own bones. The fastidious object of his sketch forms a conspicuous figure in the group of the "Street Auctioneer."

The mirthful spirit of the artist, which drew him so powerfully to congenial subjects, was not confined to drawing; it found vent also in buoyant mimicry, in which he could act the droll characters of his daily search, as well as draw them. In this way, though deprived of the power of utterance, he could deliver jokes that set the company in a roar. It is gratifying also to add, that with all this mirthfulness there was a soundness of moral principle and depth of religious feeling within him that aimed at nobler ends than the harmless amusement of society. From infancy he had received a religious education, and it was all the more endeared to him, perhaps, from the difficulty which he must have found in acquiring those spiritual ideas of which he saw so few visible symbols. Sacred and sincere, indeed, must be the devotion of the deaf and dumb! He was also eager to impart what he had learned, and therefore, with two friends under the same bereavement as himself, he established a religious meeting of the deaf and dumb, to whom, on the Sabbaths, he preached and expounded by signs. After Geikle’s death this interesting congregation was kept up by a worthy successor, who, we believe, still continues the good work which the artist so laudably commenced. After an uninterrupted course of good health, a short illness of a few days occurred, under which Geikie died, on the 1st of August, 1837. He was buried in the Greyfriars’ church-yard. Of his productions it is unnecessary to enter into farther analysis, as these, ninety-four in number, illustrative of Scottish character and scenery, have been published in one volume, and are familiarly known to almost every class. They are also accompanied with explanations, and a biographical introduction by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, from which the foregoing facts have been chiefly derived.

Little Anderson Close
Little Anderson Close 

See Fine Arts Museum for some of his work

See Geikie's Engravings


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