John Pettie, born in Edinburgh in 1839, was a painter of historical and literary subjects in oil, also an illustrator. His parents hoped that he would go in for business but, supported by his uncle Robert Frier, a well known teacher of drawing, he chose art. When sixteen years of age, began studying at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh under Scott Lauder alongside William Quiller Orchardson, Hugh Cameron and others. There he met William McTaggart, who was to become a life-long friend, as well as Tom Graham and Orchardson with whom he later shared a studio in London. James Drummond was impressed by Pettie’s earlier sketches. His first picture, ‘The Prison Pet’, exhibited at the RSA in 1859 was purchased for £35 by the Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts in Scotland. His diploma picture was ‘Jacobites 1745’. He became a leading member of the Sketching Club formed at the Waverley Temperance Hotel which continued until 1861. In 1862 he moved to London with Orchardson, sharing a studio. His earlier work, in which he often placed his friends, was marked by a well developed sense of humour. Particularly attracted to illustrating scenes from Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. His interpretations of historical scenes were always dramatic and imaginative, sometimes theatrical. Excelled in costume pieces, producing figures of striking force even when using only grey washes. Particularly attracted to military episodes, the best known being ‘The Drumhead Court Martial’. His style was vigorous and in its richness of texture shows the influence of Van Dyck and Rubens. He was extremely generous, giving many of his paintings to friends, refusing any remuneration. He had a simple straightforward nature and was very hospitable. ‘Pettie is all decision and strength, he is sensuous where Orchardson is intellectual. He seizes an incident and paints a paean , a ballad, a joke, but whatever it may be, he sets out with a clearly defined purpose and never wanders from the strict line leading to its attainment’ [Hardie]. In his portrayal of Highland life he has never been bettered. The Art Journal, writing of ‘The Chieftain’s Candlesticks’, noted ‘there is not another artist who could have painted with such trenchant force and truthfulness of effect those two stalwart Highlanders with flambeau in one hand and claymore in the other standing in their native dignity by the side of their Chieftain’s chair in this bare and rugged hall’. After 1870 he experimented with chiaroscuro effects and turned more to portrait painting, often depicting his sitters in historical costume.
Represented in the National Gallery, V&A, National Gallery of Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and numerous other collections.
Elected ARA 1866, RA 1873.
Treason was described glowingly in a monograph on the artist by William Hardie as “a triumph of dramatic intensity and glowing colour. The picture has a grip and unity of conception that places it on a higher level.“