Decorated initial J

ames McLachlan Nairn was born into the middle class in Aberfoyle, not far from Falkirk, Scotland. He studied art at the Glasgow School of Art (1879-83) while apprenticed in an architect's office with the aim of becoming a draughtsman, and at a life-class (the Glasgow Art Club) set up by the older painter W.Y. Macgregor for independent study that drew on French Impressionism; and then, for a shorter time, at the famous Académie Julian in Paris. In Macgregor's class Nairn was in the company of "Walton, Henry, Paterson, and himself [where] prettiness, sentimentality, and subject in the old anecdotal sense were condemned, and broad, powerful painting, full in tone and true in value, was cultivated" (Caw 345). Also, in 1888 he joined the influential artistic colony at Kirkcudbright for a season.

Nairn began to exhibit at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts (1880) and at the Royal Scottish Academy (1882); at the latter he made a great impression in 1885, with other Glasgow Art Club painters, while continuing to appear at the former until 1889. He became identified with landscape and, secondarily, portraiture. Kildonan (1886, Glasgow Life Museums), Harwich Green and View of Corrie on Arran (Fleming Collection) exemplify his approach: plein-air painting of everyday scenery influenced by recent French examples, up to and including Degas and Jules Bastien-Lepage.

At the end of 1889, Nairn left Scotland for New Zealand in search of a better climate for his health. He had two siblings in the country, one living in the rural south and another in the north island city of Wellington, but quickly settled in the southern city of Dunedin, at that time perhaps the foremost cultural centre of the country. He began exhibiting his work in 1890, attracting attention for his Frenchified manner of painting, and before that year was out had moved north to Wellington to live with his brother Archibald. In 1891, he was appointed to teach at the Wellington School of Design (later Wellington Technical College), and effected a great modernisation of art education there. Although he quickly became prominent in the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, in 1892 he established the independent-minded Wellington Art Club, a kind of equivalent to the Glasgow Art Club that had nurtured him as an enthusiastic young painter, and a summer art colony in the countryside just outside the city, known now as Pumpkin Cottage.

Nairn married in 1898 and had two daughters before his untimely death in 1904. While his up-to-date ideas about painting created controversy, he was one of the leading painters of the country, bringing plein-airism within the New Zealand artist's reach in lively, glowing compositions such as Tess (1893, Te Papa Tongarewa), Hoeing the Crop (1894-5, Christchurch Art Gallery), Changing Pastures (1899) and A Summer Idyll (1903, Christchurch Art Gallery), and inspiring numerous New Zealand artists, notable amongst whom were painters Mabel Hill and Mary Tripe.


Brown, Gordon H., and Keith, Hamish. New Zealand Painting 1839-1980. Auckland: David Bateman, 1988 (see pp. 78-86).

Caw, James L. Scottish Painting 1620-1908. Edinburgh: T.C. and E.C. Jack, 1908: 345-84.

Gerrish Nunn, Pamela. "Rural Idylls." Art New Zealand. 172 (Summer 2019-20): 98-110.

Goodger, Noel. Wellington Art Club Inc: a brief history of the Wellington Art Club. Wellington: Wellington Art Club, 1992.

Nairn and his Associates. Wellington: National Art Gallery (N.Z.), 1969.

Vial, Jane. "Nairn, James McLauchlan", Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

Created 10 August 2022