The Gillies family: An alternative success story

Gordon Brennan, Emma Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract by Gordon Brennan, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Edinburgh College of Art and Honorary Curator of the University of Edinburgh Art Collection & Emma Smith, Exhibitions Officer (University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections) Emma Smith Gillies (1900-1936) was first exposed to the art of ceramics through connections with the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes and Mak’Merry Pottery. Her early life was spent working in the family tobacconist to support her parents and enable her elder brother William (1898 -1973) to study at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). By 1929, William had an emerging professional career and held a position on the staff of ECA. Emma’s obligation to support her family eased, permitting her to enrol on the ceramics course at ECA, where she excelled and received a bursary to study with William Staite Murray (1881-1962), at the Royal College of Art, London. Emma was a talented and prolific artist with a burgeoning career ahead of her. Her potential was never to be fully realised, due to her untimely death in 1936 from a paternally inherited autoimmune thyroid disease. In 2012, the college undertook an audit of their collections that brought to light a 200-piece body of ceramic works by Emma. Ranging from exquisitely painted ceramic blanks to robust, hand-thrown pieces and playful animal models, the collection was founded during Emma’s time as an undergraduate and William’s 41-year teaching career. Tea-stains and paint splodges are indicative of the collection’s former life as part of the fabric of the college, a provenance that remains intrinsic to the pieces as they enter a new chapter as part of the University of Edinburgh Art Collection. The collection was supplemented by work from the Royal Scottish Academy, National Galleries Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council and exhibited in March 2015 at the University of Edinburgh Main Library Exhibition Gallery. Emma’s work shows great confidence and dexterity; her method transcends the application of decoration, creating painted objects that unify surface, colour and form. It is difficult to separate Emma from her family; we can however, acknowledge that she was an artist in her own right and not only the sister of William, or a tragic figure. Her work can be evaluated through the context of women’s position in society in the 1920s and through commemoration in her brother’s paintings. There is also a strong case to be made for Emma’s esteemed place in the landscape of twentieth century Scottish art.This collection is not static, there are still questions to be answered to help us further re-evaluate the importance of Emma Gillies. The motto of the SWRI is “If you know a good thing, pass it on”. This paper is a platform and an opportunity to gather and pass on new knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-26
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the Scottish Society for Art History
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2016


  • Emma Gillies
  • Ceramics
  • Scottish art


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  • Emma Gillies Rediscovered

    Brennan, G., 5 Dec 2014

    Research output: Non-textual formExhibition

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