NAIRN, James McLachlan
A new biography of Nairn, James McLauchlan appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
James McLachlan Nairn was born at Lenzie (Campsie Junction), near Glasgow, on 18 November 1859, the son of Archibald Nairn, property valuator. He received his art training at the Glasgow School of Art and later studied on the Continent. His work in the life class in W. Y. Macgregor's Glasgow studio had marked him out as a man of promise and, when he was elected a member of the Glasgow Art Club, success was in sight. But his health broke down, with the result that he sailed for New Zealand in the Forfarshire, landing at Dunedin in 1890.
Nairn exhibited his pictures in Dunedin and gave lectures in art, later moving to Wellington in 1891, where he was offered an appointment as instructor in art at the School of Design (afterwards the Technical College). There he directed classes in antique and still life, and was the first teacher in New Zealand to conduct classes for the study of the nude figure. During the summer holidays he usually left Wellington on sketching expeditions, his favourite area being the Hutt Valley where he had, near Silverstream, a small cottage which served as a rough studio. He had painted on the outside walls a pole with a large pumpkin hanging from it, and here, at “Pumpkin Cottage”, many of his students spent their holidays with him in long days of open-air sketching. Never of robust health, Nairn died on 22 February 1904, survived by his widow and two children.
Nairn possessed many manly qualities and had a genial and approachable manner which made him both popular and respected in Wellington art circles. In matters of art, however, he was an uncompromising critic. Working in oils and watercolour, Nairn painted mainly portraits and landscapes. He had a profound influence on New Zealand art. Coming as he did, direct from the influence of the art of Europe and, in particular, from the strongly impressionist Glasgow school, Nairn was responsible for introducing impressionism to New Zealand. In 1893 his Tess, exhibited at Otago Art Society, was reported as “a departure from anything ever before attempted in New Zealand”. His influence was most strongly felt in the Wellington area, however, where his importance can be likened to that of his contemporary, Van der Velden on the Christchurch scene. Certainly the freshness of colour in Nairn's work and its breadth of treatment dispelled the prevailing gloom of Wellington painting at the end of the century. An excellent draughtsman, and a firm believer in drawing from life and of the need to go direct to nature for inspiration, he imparted an atmosphere of vigour to all his work.
Among his important portraits are those of Mr Justice Richmond, Mr Justice Chapman, and Sir James Prendergast, which are now in the Supreme Court, Wellington. Some of his landscapes, notably A Summer Idyll, were acquired by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, of which he was vice-president. Nairn is also represented in the Public Gallery at Wanganui and in other galleries throughout New Zealand.
by Thomas Esplin, D.A.(EDIN.), Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Home Science, University of Otago.
Art in New Zealand, Dec 1928; New Zealand Times, 23, 24 Feb 1904.