By Leslie S. Klinger
What inborn traits, what ancestry propelled John H. Watson, M.D., holder of a medical degree from the University of London(1) and about whom Sherlock Holmes once said, "I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent [a British jury]"(2), to become the world's most widely read author? An article in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica(3) reveals a startling new clue to the origins of Watson's literary bent.
[Sir John Watson Gordon], (1788-1864), Scottish painter, was the eldest son of Captain Watson, R. N., a cadet of the family of Watson of Overmains, in the county of Berwick. He was born in Edinburgh in 1788, and, it being his father's desire that he should enter the army, was educated specially with a view to his joining the Royal Engineers. As drawing was even at that period considered a not inappropriate accomplishment for the scientific service, he was, while waiting for his commission, entered as a student in the Government school of design, then as now under the management of the Board of Manufactures.
With the opportunity, his natural taste for art quickly developed itself, and his industry and progress were such that his father was persuaded to allow him to adopt it as his profession. Captain Watson was himself a skillful draughtsman, and his brother George Watson, afterwards president of the Scottish Academy, stood high as a portrait painter, second only to Sir Henry Raeburn, who also was a friend of the family. Between the studies of his uncle and his friend, John Watson seems to have thought he had every necessary assistance a young artist required, and neither then nor at a future period showed any desire for foreign study; his art consequently is more purely of native growth than that of any of his contemporaries.
In the year 1808 he sent to the exhibition of the Lyceum in Nicolson Street a subject from the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and continued for some years to exhibit fancy subjects; but, although freely and sweetly painted, they were altogether without the force and character which in his own proper walk stamped his portrait pictures as the works of a master. After the death of Sir Henry Raeburn in 1823, he succeeded to much of his practice; and as there were at that time in Edinburgh four artists of the name of Watson, all of them portrait painters, he assumed in 1826 the name of Gordon, by which he is best known.
Mixing a good deal in literary and scientific society, he painted most of the notabilities who lived in or visited the northern metropolis during his career; one of the earliest of his famous sitters was Sir Walter Scott, who sat for a first portrait in 1820. Then came J. G. Lockhart in 1821; Professor Wilson, 1822 and 1850, two portraits; Sir Archibald Alison, 1839; Dr. Chalmers, 1844; a little later De Quincey and Sir David Brewster, 1864, being the last picture he painted.
Among his most important works may be mentioned the earl of Dalhousie, 1833, now in the Archers' Hall, Edinburgh; Sir Alexander Hope, 1835, in the county buildings, Linlithgow; Lord President Hope, in the parliament House; and Dr. Chalmers, 1844. These are all full length, and were exhibited in London, where they attracted great attention (the Chalmers portrait was purchased some years later by Sir Robert Peel, and is now in the Peel Gallery).; they belong to his middle period, and are distinguished by great sweetness in execution, and, unlike his later works, are generally rich in colour. The full length of Dr. Brunton, 1844, and Dr. Lee, the principal of the University, 1846, both in the staircase of the College Library, mark a modification of his style, which ultimately resolved itself into extreme complexity, both of colour and treatment.
During the last twenty years of his life he painted many distinguished Englishmen who came to Edinburgh to sit to him. And it is significant of the position he held in the esteem of artists themselves that David Cox, the landscape painter, on being presented with his portrait, subscribed for by many friends, chose to go to Edinburgh to have it executed by Watson Gordon, although he neither knew the painter personally nor had ever before visited the country. Among the portraits painted during this period, in what may be termed his third style, are De Quincey, the opium eater, in the National Portrait Gallery, London; General Sir Thomas Macdougall Brisbane, in the Royal Society, the prince of Wales, Lord Macaulay, Sir M. Packington, Lord Murray, Lord Cockburn, Lord Rutherford, and Sir John Shaw Lefevre, in the Scottish National Gallery, and a host of others, for latterly he not only possessed great facility of brush but was industrious of a fault. These latter pictures are mostly clear and grey, sometimes showing little or no positive colour, the flesh itself being very grey, and the handling extremely masterful, though never obtruding its cleverness. He was very successful in rendering acute observant character, and there is a look of mobility of feature, in repose it is true, but suggesting that the eye could twinkle and the lips relax. As an example of his last style, showing pearly flesh painting freely handled, yet highly finished, the head of Sir John Shaw Lefevre will hold its own in any school.
John Watson Gordon was one of the earliest members of the Royal Scottish Academy, and was elected its president in 1850; he was at the same time appointed limner to her majesty for Scotland, and received the honor of knighthood. Since 1841 he had been an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1851 he was elected a Royal Academician. Sir John continued to paint with little if any diminution of power until within a very few weeks of his death, which occurred on the 1st of June 1864.
An example of Watson Gordon's work--a portrait of Sir John Gladstone, father of William Gladstone, prime minister of England(4), and the inventor of the "Gladstone" bag(5)--painted>c. 1830 follows:
John H. Watson, who had "neither kith nor kin in England(6)," clearly had relatives elsewhere, for we learn of his father and brother in SIGN. Dr. Watson attended school in England(7) but there is no indication of his family's roots.(8) Watson Gordon's fame was at its zenith in 1850, shortly before the generally-accepted year for the birth of young John (1852)(9), and therefore it is not unreasonable to suppose that Watson Gordon was his namesake. Watson Gordon was himself unmarried and childless, and this homage from his cousin may well have been a deliberate attempt at flattery, to win young John a patron.
If John H. Watson had kin in Scotland, it seems unlikely that he would visit there without exposure to the public buildings and museums of Edinburgh housing his illustrious relative's work. Indeed, he may have spent time in Watson-Gordon's studio, soaking up the artistic culture of Edinburgh. He also would have visited London with his family and viewed Watson Gordon's work there in the galleries.(10)
That Watson and Watson Gordon shared an ancestor seems certain. How else explain the bent of a scientific man--for John H. Watson's training was in medicine--for the arts? Who but a natural artist could write of an "old home, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichens and topped with moss"(11) or who could paint such word portraits(12) as those of Cyril Overton ("sixteen stone of solid bone and muscle"(13)), Mr. Sandeford ("an elderly red-faced man with grizzled side-whiskers"(14)) or Captain Croker?(15) Is not the visual element striking in Dr. Watson's words:
The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour.
Holmes himself recognized Dr. Watson's "painterly" tendencies. "Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon?" he suggests to Watson(16), before Watson has published a word, and gives Dr. Watson an appropriate painting-title for his first book: "A Study in Scarlet." In COPP, for example, he contrasts his and Watson's viewpoints: "You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there." In CROO, Holmes refers to Dr. Watson's tales as "these little sketches of yours."
This discovery of Watson's family offers for the first time an understanding of why his "tree" may have developed a sudden "eccentricity" in the direction of writing.(17) Further, it may explain Watson's fascination with General Charles "Chinese" Gordon,(18) his cousin's pseudonymous namesake. What could be more natural than to admire not one but two Gordons?
3. P. X-782.
4. And probable client of Holmes in NAVA.
5. Holmes owned one. See TWIS.
8. Dorothy L. Sayers, in "Dr. Watson's Christian Name," writes: "Sturdily and essentially English as he was, he may well, like most English people, have had a Socttish ancestor in his family tree. A hundred Scottish ancestors, nay, even a Scottish mother, would in no way affect the indomitable Englishry of Dr. Watson. In fact, there is some slight evidence for a Scots strain in Watson. It may not be mere coincidence that led Holmes (a shrewd student of national character) to select the adjective 'pawky' for the vein of humour which Watson displayed during the adventure of The Valley of Fear and which took his distinguished friend a little aback. Watson's mother may have been a Scot--not, I think, a Highland woman, but a native of Eastern Scotland.... The true Highland is a Celt--quick-tempered, poetical, and humourless--everything that Watson was not. Dourness and pawkiness belong to the Aberdeen side of the country." Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. (1946)), at 150. Sayers goes on to argue that Watson's mother gave him the Christian name of "Hamish."
9. See William S. Baring-Gould, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (New York: Clarkson N. Potter (1962)), at 293; June Thomson, Holmes and Watson (London: Constable & Company Ltd. (1995), at 21; S. C. Roberts, Dr. Watson (London: Faber & Faber (1931)), at 8.
10. It seems characteristically reticent of Dr. Watson that while Holmes spoke (in GREE) of "my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist," Watson remained silent about his own artistic connections.
11. RETI. To which description, it should be recalled, Holmes retorted, "Cut out thepoetry."
12. As noted by Colin Prestige in "John H. Watson, M.D.," Baker Street Miscellanea, No. 49 (Spring 1987), 11.
16. In STUD.
17. Cf. EMPT: "There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family."