Fiona Salvesen Murrell is studying William Shiels, R.S.A. (1783-1857); identity, scientific enquiry, and the development of art institutions in Britain and North America. In three parts she tells us about the work of William Shiels and the collection held at National Museums Scotland. In part 1 Fiona looks at how she came to start researching William Shiels. In part 2 find out about the artist and his work and in part 3 discover the surviving works. Visit National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride to see some of Shiels’s paintings for yourself.
National Museums Scotland holds a highly important collection of thirty-five livestock portraits by William Shiels Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) (1783-1857). . They came to National Museums Scotland in the late 1960s from the University of Edinburgh, who retain six further animal portraits in their collection. The paintings were originally the star attraction of the Museum of Agriculture formed at the University of Edinburgh from 1832 by the Professor of Agriculture, David Low .
My time at National Museums Scotland
I worked at National Museums Scotland as a Curator for two and half years until December 1998. My background was in Art History and through Hugh Cheape (then Curator of Scottish Material Culture) I became aware of the thirty-five animal paintings by William Shiels which were then in store. Hugh had done some work on the paintings but he felt they were under-researched and potentially very important. National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust awarded me a grant to research the paintings for three months in 1999.
During that time I began researching the history of paintings and why they were commissioned, where they were housed and what had happened to them. The archives of the University, Town Council of Edinburgh, RSA and National Archives of Scotland have proved invaluable in not only revealing much about the paintings but also the social and cultural context in which they were produced.
After my contract finished at National Museums Scotland, I then worked in several museums and galleries in England as a Curator of Art. After doing research in the United States, thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in 2006, I decided to take my earlier work on Shiels further and commenced my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. Since late 2007 I have had a very fascinating journey into the politics, social life, and museum and art world of the early to mid-19th century.
 Three copies made for the owners of the animals by William Shiels are in National Museums Wales.
 David Low (17 86-1859) Professor of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh.