Robert Buchan Nisbet was a Scottish landscape painter, renowned for his pictures of sweeping rural scenes. He worked primarily in watercolour, and his traditional style is compared to that of David Cox and Peter de Wint. Throughout his lifetime, he exhibited both nationally and internationally, but always remained devoted to his native Scotland; he was a founding member of the Scottish Society of Artists and its second president.
Robert Buchan Nisbet was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 1 July 1857, the youngest son of John Nisbet and his wife, Isabella (née Waldie). Throughout his childhood, the family lived on George Street in the centre of Edinburgh, where his father was a successful house painter, employing twenty men and three boys.
Nisbet’s earliest artistic influence is likely to have come from his eldest brother, Pollock Sinclair, who was nine years his senior and who would also go on to become a notable artist. Pollock studied under Horatio McCulloch in Edinburgh, whilst living at home, before leaving for the continent.
Nisbet would continue to have a close and formative relationship with him throughout his childhood and early adulthood.
In 1871, John Nisbet is listed as living with his four sons at George Street; however, it seems that his wife was living alone across the city, at 189 Causewayside. It is possible that between 1861 and 1871 Nisbet’s parents became estranged, as from this date on Nisbet does not seem to have had any further contact with his mother. In the census for that year, Pollock Sinclair was listed as an ‘art student’, possibly referring to his study with McCulloch. Though Robert Nisbet himself was initially apprenticed in a shipping office, it seems that the influence of his elder brother and his own artistic talent became difficult to ignore.
In 1880, Robert Nisbet took up painting and quickly devoted himself to the medium of watercolour, though he did also work in oil. He travelled to Venice to join his brother, Pollock, who had already established himself as an artist. Works such as The Doge’s Palace were likely produced on this visit. Upon his return to Edinburgh later that same year, he exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. At this time, he was living at 12 Broughton Street, with his father, his new stepmother, Margaret, and his elder brother James, who, like their father, was recorded as being a ’painter’. In 1882, Nesbit enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy and attended life classes there until 1885, when he travelled to Paris to study under William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Throughout the 1880s, Nisbet gained a reputation for his landscape watercolours that he maintained throughout his career. His work is characterised by his use of fluid washes compounded by a meticulous dabbing and scrubbing technique. His loose, broad strokes and focus on scenes of juxtaposing light and shade were often compared to that of de Wint, though in direct comparison Nesbit was criticised for his lack of spontaneity and for scrubbing the colour out of his pictures. However, negative reception of his work was infrequent and did not detract from his domestic and international success; his pictures were consistently popular at the exhibiting societies of the day. In 1888, he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy, and in 1890, Evening Stillness was purchased for the Tate with the Chantrey Bequest when it was seen exhibited at the RA. Nevertheless, Nesbit took a patriotic and proactive approach to his work in his native Scotland; in 1891 he became a founding member of the Scottish Society of Artists and its second president after Robert Noble.
Nisbet’s success grew steadily, in the 1890s. By 1891, he was living at Tuscullam House, Inveresk, with his widowed stepmother Margaret, and had become a member of the Royal Society of British Artists. In 1892, he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and, in 1893, an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1893 (he became a full member in 1902). James McNeill Whistler invited him to exhibit at the International Society of Painters, Sculpture and Gravers, 1898, further establishing his international reputation.
In 1895, Nisbet married, the artist Margaret Dempster, the daughter of a wealthy sugar refiner. During the early months of their marriage, they shared a studio in Shandwick Place and held the position of Secretary of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Art Club until 1896 when they moved from Edinburgh to Crieff. The couple settled in Dalginross, in the Perthshire countryside where they were to remain until their deaths, they never had children. Nisbet continued to exhibit in Scotland, at the RA, RWS, RBA and RI in London as well as in America, Berlin and Belgium, where he was elected a member of Royal Belgian Watercolour Society.
Nisbet died of a stroke on 5August 1942. He is buried with his wife, Margaret, who had died in 1935, in Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh.
His work is represented in numerous public collections.