Walter Geikie RSA, a deaf and dumb man, was one of the most remarkable Scottish artists in the early 19th century. The Shoe Stand and The Grandchild reading are two original engravings, donated from the estate of Margaret Lawrie. Geikie sketched both works and his studies of Edinburgh’s population were honest, humorous, full of empathy and showed a wide variety of everyday life from the revelry of the fairground to agricultural labour.
His images of people eating and drinking, working, participating in family conversations and socialising illustrated his frank attitude to life. He even drew people fighting, drinking to excess in taverns and fairgrounds and then staggering home, physically supported by some members of their families.
Walter simply drew what he saw, creating images of people around him, giving us fascinating glimpses into the past of what people did, what they wore and what they looked like, revealing much about how Edinburgh’s poor and working classes lived. Geikie seemed not to be interested in portraying middle-class and rich people since there are no drawings of them.
Who was he?
The son of a pharmacist, Walter Geikie was born in Edinburgh on 9th November 1795 and became deaf just before his 2nd birthday when he contracted a serious fever that resulted in permanent hearing loss. (It could have been meningitis). He grew up deaf and dumb and his father could not afford to send him to deaf schools in the south of England so his father searched for guidance to educate his son. Fortunately he came across Joseph Watson’s book The Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and used it to work tirelessly on Walter’s education, teaching him to communicate, read and write. His artistic ambitions emerged in his childhood, perhaps as a necessary means of self-expression. According to his biographer Thomas Dick Lauder he began drawing figures on the ground, walls, doors and pavements before he was given his first sketchbook. Again his family encouraged him and in 1812 he was admitted to the Trustees’ Academy of Edinburgh in which he received training from several tutors and he first exhibited in 1821. After that he soon began showing his artworks regularly. His works gained respect and were very well received and esteemed so much that he was elected to the Scottish Academy in 1831 and then in 1834 he was honoured by being elected as an Academician. It appears that he was colour blind. He received special training to do oils but these oil works were not so successful as his etchings.
It was said that Geikie was a very lively and sociable person, possessing a strong sense of humour and was a gifted mimic, often entertaining other members of the Academy with his impersonations of people, making them roar with laughter. This would explain his acute observational skills as his depiction of the daily life of working people was a ‘warts and all’ approach that was unusual for his time.
In this etching of a boy drawing on the floor a figure on horseback, making him the focus of attention with two seated adults looking on admiringly. Was it how Geikie remembered himself as a child, drawing on the floor as a part of his communication to get his message across? His brother had recalled that with Geikie “shut out from intercourse with boys of his own age, he found resources of his own, and getting chalk, began to draw figures on the floor, on doors, and any smooth surface within reach.” When his father became aware of Walter’s budding talent from observing his drawings on floor he gave his son pencils and a sketchbook.
Geikie associated with the deaf people of Edinburgh, communicating with them through sign language and was a cofounder of the world’s first Deaf Church and Society, the Edinburgh Deaf and Dumb Benevolent Society. He took active part in the work of this society but as he was a vigorous and sociable person, not shy at all, he was well known to the inhabitants of Edinburgh and very popular.
One would have thought he would do some drawings of deaf people socialising or going about with their daily lives but that was not detected in any of his works. Usually in hearing artists’ work their portraits of people would show their hands resting on their laps or holding something but in several of Walter’s works people were using their hands – were they signing?
Geikie died in August 1837 aged 41 after a short illness of a few days and he was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard. It was said he left over 1,100 original sketches, but no selfportrait could be traced.
Did he include a drawing of himself in any of his works?