James McLauchlan Nairn arrived in New Zealand in 1890. Intending only a visit, he stayed for the rest of his short life and became this country's most renowned impressionist painter.
He was born at Campsie Junction in the parish of Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on 18 November 1859, one of seven or more children of Catherine Rennie and her husband, Archibald Nairn, a builder and property valuer. James (also known as Jimmy) appears to have been the only member of his family to pursue an artistic career. He attended school in Glasgow from 1867, and was later apprenticed as a draughtsman in an architect's office. While working he studied part time at the Glasgow School of Art for four years from 1879. He appears to have become a full-time artist soon after.
By the time he left Scotland in 1889 James Nairn was an established member of the Glasgow Boys, the Scottish-based early modern art group. Breaking with academic conventions, they declared their right to paint not only the subject matter of their choice but also in the manner they wished. Contemporary subjects painted out of doors characterised their work. This avant-garde attitude was to be one of Nairn's major contributions to New Zealand art.
Nairn emigrated to New Zealand, apparently on account of poor health, arriving at Dunedin aboard the Forfarshire on 2 January 1890. An older sister and brother had preceded him. Isabella Nairn had married a merchant, Thomas MacGibbon of Mataura, while Archibald Nairn settled in Wellington as an accountant. Initially James stayed at Mataura setting up a studio in his brother-in-law's building. By August 1890 he was living in Wellington with Archibald, apparently supporting himself by painting and drawing cartoons.
During the maritime strike of that year he, along with other artists, supported the strikers. He also illustrated a booklet of cartoons, Strike notes, which remains a valuable record of the strike in Wellington. Nairn produced a number of popular figure paintings of rural workers, including Tess (1893) and A summer idyll (1903). These can be interpreted both as celebrations of rural life and as escapist images: he saw the countryside as a retreat from urban life.
In December 1891 Nairn was appointed to teach still-life painting and life drawing at the Wellington Technical School, under the directorship of Arthur Dewhurst Riley. He remained teaching there until his death in 1904. In addition to preparing students for the London-based South Kensington art examinations he offered classes in drawing from the live model in which his fellow teachers, including Mary Elizabeth Richardson (later well known as M. E. R. Tripe) and Mabel Hill, also participated. Although sometimes criticised in the press, his freely impressionist style and especially his plein-air landscape painting were generally popular in Wellington. He also painted portraits at his studio in Lambton Quay.
Nairn joined the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts soon after his arrival in Wellington, serving on its council from 1890 to 1903 and as vice president from 1898 to 1900. However, in 1892 he led a breakaway group in reaction to the romantic and mannered style of painting favoured by the academy. This group, the Wellington Art Club, of which Nairn was president from 1892 to 1896, offered opportunities for artists to gather informally and to sketch directly from nature. The club held annual exhibitions and acted as a forum in Wellington for the dissemination of avant-garde ideas of art.
The Art Club members often met at Silverstream in the Hutt Valley, where Nairn rented his famous Pumpkin Cottage about 1894. This was intended primarily as a place to leave canvases to dry, but Nairn also spent weekends there painting with some of the male members of the club. Ironically, his more renowned followers were women, like M. E. R. Tripe and Mabel Hill, who were precluded from participating fully in this aspect of Nairn's Bohemian lifestyle. This probably accounts for the absence of a readily definable Silverstream school. There are, however, many landscapes of the Wellington region by Nairn and Art Club members. Pumpkin Cottage remained a regular meeting place for the Wellington Art Club for many years. It was demolished in 1980.
In his spare time Nairn enjoyed amateur opera and drama, and was a foundation member of the Wellington Dramatic Students in November 1893. On 17 March 1898, at Silverstream, he married 19-year-old Ellen Smith. The couple had two daughters, Mari Bhan and Ellen May Victoria. James Nairn was only 44 years old when he died of a perforating bowel ulcer, at his home in Wellington on 22 February 1904. Although he was Wellington's leading artist his reputedly carefree attitude to money left his family in virtual poverty. His colleagues and patrons immediately raised money for them, and a fund-raising exhibition was held at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. Ellen Nairn later remarried twice. She died at Wellington on 23 December 1955.
James Nairn's influence was felt not only in Wellington but throughout New Zealand. He regularly sent exhibits to art societies in the other centres, furthering his reputation as the country's leading modern painter, a position which was secured once Girolamo Nerli returned to Australia in 1898. His professionalism is often regarded as his major contribution to the New Zealand art scene. His reputation and significance owe more, however, to his avant-garde attitudes and his impressionist style.