William Birnie Biography

William Birnie RSW, RGI, PAI (1929-2006)

William Birnie had a long and distinguished career in art and education. He studied at Glasgow School of Art under Gilbert Spencer and at Hospitalfield Art College under Ian Fleming. A talented student, he had the rare experience of having his work purchased by his tutors.

He joined the staff at Hyndland Secondary in 1952 when he was also elected member SSA. In 1958, he became founder member of the Glasgow Group and formed the Glasgow Group Society. He was vice-president for 32 years.

In 1965, he was elected as a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), of which he also became vice-president and treasurer.

He went on to be principal art teacher at Douglas Academy and later at Gryffe High. He was appointed head examiner in art by the Scottish Education Department, while still managing to maintain an active exhibiting schedule, showing in all the main public galleries and many of Scotland’s best commercial galleries. His work was enthusiastically collected and increasingly sought-after. He was also elected to the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts (RGI) and Paisley Art Institute (PAI).

In his early years, he painted from his garden, showing the village of Kilbarchan in its changing seasons, under a quiet blanket of winter snow or framed in a blazing sunset through autumnal trees. In all his work, one sees the hand of man, the agricultural fields of Balfron, the village spires, the farms and harbours of Fife.

Later visits to France and Italy with his artist wife, Cynthia Wall, brought new subject matter, café scenes, vine groves, cliff-top villages and the crumbling facades of palaces and churches of Venice.  He was a lover of Italian culture: its wine, its food and its opera.  When working in his studio, the background was generally filled with the sound of an early Schipa or De Stefano.

Of his own work, he said he needed the stimulus of the observed scene. Few artists observed better. Boats and palaces could have been rebuilt from his drawings. Light shimmering on a surface infused all his work; light was his true motif and his response to light gave his work a consistency that was instantly recognisable.

It was characteristic of the man that when told that his illness was terminal, he calmly put his affairs in order and started work for a final one man show at the Open Eye, the scene of so many of his successful shows. Despite being able to work only one or two hours each day, he completed an exhibition of his favourite East Neuk. The exhibition contained some of his finest work and was a sell-out. Though weak, he was there to welcome many friends who came to the opening.

Bill’s legacy from a painting career of more than 50 years will be in the collections of more than 1000 homes. He combined a poetic vision with a generosity of spirit and exceptional administrative gifts, all of which he shared readily with family colleagues and friends.