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John Kelso Hunter (15 December 1802 – 3 February 1873) was a self-taught Scottish portrait painter and author of two books.

Hunter was the second son of one Hunter of Chirnside who in 1799 moved the family from Chirnside, a village in Berwickshire, to take employment as a gardener at an Ayrshire estate owned by Colonel William Kelso. Hunter was born at Dunkeith, Ayrshire, and was a relation to the McCallums of Troon. His father died in about 1810. He was for some time employed as a herd-boy on the estate, and was then apprenticed to a shoemaker; when his indentures expired, he settled at Kilmarnock. On 9 August 1822 he married Agnes Willock in Low Church, Kilmarnock. He taught himself portrait painting while continuing his work as a shoemaker. The couple had 13 children over a period of 22 years.

  1. William Hunter - Birth: 26 January 1823 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: Unknown
  2. Isabella Hunter - Birth: 14 April 1824 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 29 December 1836 (Kilmarnock, Scotland)
  3. John Kelso Hunter - Birth: 4 June 1826 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 2 March 1858 (Glasgow, Scotland)
  4. Helen Hunter - Birth: 29 December 1827 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: Unknown
  5. George Hunter - Birth: 9 June 1828 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 12 May 1838 (Kilmarnock, Scotland)
  6. Anne Hunter - Birth: 22 November 1830 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 1898 (Beechworth, Victoria, Australia)
  7. David Hunter - Birth: 19 May 1832 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: Unknown
  8. James Hunter - Birth: 21 January 1834 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 7 June 1841 (Kilmarnock, Scotland)
  9. Agnes Hunter - Birth: 28 November 1835 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: 18 April 1837 (Kilmarnock, Scotland)
  10. Isabella Hunter - Birth: 8 December 1838 (Kilmarnock, Scotland) Death: Unknown
  11. George Hunter - Birth: 9 September 1840 (Glasgow, Scotland) Death: Unknown
  12. Susanna Hunter - Birth: 7 May 1842 (Glasgow, Scotland) Death: 1 May 1843 (Glasgow, Scotland)
  13. Harry Johnson Hunter - Birth: 29 October 1845 (Glasgow, Scotland) Death: Unknown

Hunter moved to Glasgow, where he was employed alternately as an artist and a shoemaker. In 1847 he exhibited a portrait of himself as a cobbler at the Royal Academy, London; it was the only piece of his to be displayed there. He exhibited his painting 'A Man's Head' at the Annual Exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1849. After 9 years, he gave the Academy his formal self-portrait piece. He contributed three other works, ‘A Roadside Inn, Ayr’ in 1868 and ‘From Above Port-Glasgow’ and 'Self Portrait as a Shoemaker' in 1872. (Displayed Below)

During 1861 and 1873, Hunter exhibited seven paintings at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts:

  • 1861 - 'Self Portrait'
  • 1862 - 'Dreghorn, Ayrshire'
  • 1871 - 'The Reader'
  • 1872 - 'Loch Lomond, from Mount Misery' and 'Gourock - looking up the Clyde'
  • 1873 - 'Self Portrait as a Shoemaker' and 'From Above Port-Glasgow'

In 1868 he published his first book, The Retrospect of an Artist's Life, subtitled Memorials of West-Country Men and Manners of the Past Half Century. Acquainted in his youth with many who had known Robert Burns, and with some of the heroes of the poet's verse, Hunter embodied these recollections in a volume entitled Life Studies of Character, printed in 1870. The book throws much light on the works of Burns, especially on the original of Dr. Hornbook, and faithfully describes the society into which the poet was born. Valuable notices are supplied of the song writer, Tannahill, and other minor poets of the north.

According to Hunter's autobiography, his son John Kelso Jr was employed as a teacher and died at 33, Hunter wrote 'he fell into bad health'. He also wrote that his son's wife died shortly after him and his three sons were left to their maternal grandmother.

Hunter's daughter, Anne, married John Laidley Duncan in Scotland, they moved to Australia not long after their marriage in 1854. In 1859, Duncan formed an Iron Foundry with Mark Straughair in Beechworth, Australia. Anne and John had 12 children and 17 grandchildren together.

Harry Johnson, Hunter's youngest child, was also an artist, a landscape painter in oil and watercolour. It lists in The Dictionary of Scottish Art & Architecture, Harry Hunter exhibited 'A View of Cathcart Church' at the Royal Scottish Academy and Glasgow Institute of Fine Art.

Hunter died at Pollokshields, Glasgow.


External links

  • John Kelso Hunter's Autobiography: The Retrospect of an Artist's Life [1]
  • Future Museum, South West Scotland [2]
  • [3]
  • Ayrshire History: [4]


  • Peter J. M. McEwan, The Dictionary of Scottish Art & Architecture, Suffolk, 1994.
  • G. C. Boase, ‘Hunter, John Kelso (1802–1873)’, rev. Anne Pimlott Baker, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, first published Sept 2004.


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