William Alister Macdonald’s interest in watercolour painting emerged while at Rattray’s School in Aberdeen. His maternal grandmother brought him up after his parents died when he was four. His legal guardian, described by Macdonald himself as ‘unscrupulous’, downplayed his artistic leanings and found him work in a bank at the age of fifteen. Four years later Macdonald moved to Lothbury, east London in the employment of the London and Westminster Bank, joining sketch clubs and attending evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art in his spare time. By [date], he had abandoned the white collar, and presumably with dreams of becoming an artist, fled to Norfolk with a group of friends.
In 1885 he established himself in rooms on the Greenwich riverside. From there his interest in travel began; taking trips into the North Sea on cod-fishing smacks that were moored below his window. His first trip abroad was to Portugal. On returning to London in 1892, he lived in Camden Town at the Camden Road Studios until 1894 when he moved to Chelsea. There he sold works through the Kensington Fine Art Society.
He married Lucy Winfred Cary, a miniaturist. They lived in Temple and between 1911 and 1917 ran a picture gallery in Westminster. It appears Lucy did most of the work, while William would spend his days teaching or travelling to Sicily (1902), Holland (1904), Venice (1906), Tunis (1912) and Rome (1913). Lucy eventually became the Secretary of Royal Society of Miniature Painters in 1918, and went on to run the Arlington Gallery from 1923.
In 1923, after serving in the Army Service Supply Department during the war, Macdonald sailed for New Zealand, stopping on his way at Tahiti. He took up residence in Paul Gauguin’s house, and liked it so much he stayed until 1939 returning to England only twice to hold two exhibitions; Among the Islands of the South Seas: Impressions in Watercolour (1935) and Pre-war Wanderings: Watercolours at home and Abroad (1936) at the Arlington gallery. Lord Wakefield purchased the entire collection, which he donated to The Guildhall Art Gallery.
In Tahiti, he would sell his watercolours from the beach, charging between five and ten dollars each. Essentially a London topographer in a style reminiscent of the Belle Epoque artists Herbert Menzies Marshall and Rose Barton, he brought an effective atmospheric facility and an eye for composition to his tropical subject matter. Macdonald died at Pao Pao, on the Isle de Moorea, in French Oceana in August 1956, aged 96.