He was born at Alloa, Scotland. On leaving Foulis's academy of painting at Glasgow (1762), after seven years' successful study, he obtained the patronage of Lord Cathcart and of Erskine of Mar, on whose estate he had been born. Erskine made it possible for him to travel to Rome (1764), where he remained for several years engaged principally in copying the old masters.
Among the original works which he then painted was the "Origin of Portraiture"--representing a Corinthian maid drawing her lover's shadow--well known through Domenico Cunego's excellent engraving. This won him the gold medal given by the Academy of St Luke in the year 1773 for the best specimen of historical composition.
Returning from Rome in 1777, he lived for a time in London, and occupied himself with portrait-painting. In 1780 he removed to Edinburgh, where, on the death of Alexander Runciman in 1786, he was appointed director and master of the Academy of Arts. There he painted and etched in aquatint a variety of works, those by which he is best known--such as "Scotch Wedding", "Highland Dance", "Repentance Stool" and his "Illustrations of the Gentle Shepherd"--being remarkable for their comic humour. He was sometimes called the "Scottish Hogarth".
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.