Edwin Alexander is best remembered for his exquisite, carefully observed watercolours of flora and fauna, and of landscapes of both his native Scotland and North Africa. Often painting on silk, linen or textured paper, he developed a style that reflects the decorative approaches of Joseph Crawhall and other painters of the Glasgow School, and reveals an understanding of their common source, the art of Japan. Edwin Alexander was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 1 February 1870, the only son, and second of five children, of the animal painter, Robert Lowe Alexander RSA, and his English wife, Anne Sarah (née Jennings). During his early childhood, they lived at 13 Bell Place, and at other addresses in Edinburgh and its environs. By 1879, his father had taken Jemima Jane (née Martin) as his second wife, and together they would have four children. In that year, the family settled at ‘Plewlands’, a large detached house to the south of Edinburgh.
It would subsequently live at other properties in the area, including ‘Greenbank’, Lothian Burn (1882-84), ‘Canaan Grove’, 82 Newbattle Terrace, Morningside (1885-87), and addresses in Craiglockhart (1887-93).
From an early age, Edwin Alexander was encouraged by his father in both his talent for art and his love of plants and animals. In 1886, he began to study at the schools of the Royal Scottish Academy, though would never take a formal qualification in art. In the following year, he participated in a sketching trip to Tangier with his father and two other artists, Joseph Crawhall and Pollock Nisbet. Crawhall would have a particularly strong influence on the development of his art, in both the subject matter and handling of his refined watercolour studies of animals and birds. He also learned from other painters of the Glasgow School, with whom he mixed at the Society of Scottish Artists, of which he became a member soon after its foundation in 1891.
It was in 1891 that Alexander went to Paris to study for a few months under the eminent animal sculptor, Emmanuel Frémiet, who was professor of animal drawing at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Then, between 1892 and 1896, he made two extended trips to Egypt with fellow artist, Erskine E Nicol. They lived and worked on a houseboat on the Nile, near Cairo, and also with the Bedouin in the desert, learning Arabic in the process. Some years later, Alexander would return to the Mediterranean to visit Granada and the Balearic Islands.
Once back in Edinburgh in 1896, Edwin Alexander continued to live with his father and his family, who had settled at Hailes Cottage, on the union Canal, beyond the southwest edge of the city. While there, he began to exhibit his work regularly, in both Scotland and England and, from 1897, was promoted by The Scottish Gallery, the Edinburgh dealership run by Aitken Dott and his son, Peter McOmish Dott. He was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1899, an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1902, and an associate of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colour by 1904. In 1902, he contributed to the album of work by members of the RWS given to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in order to mark their coronation.
In 1904, Edwin Alexander married Dorothea Maclellan (known as Dora), and they settled at Shepherd House, Inveresk, just outside Musselburgh, the coastal town to the east of Edinburgh. They would have a son, Harry, born in 1906, and a daughter, Sarah (known as Sally), born in 1909. In the ‘tumble-down outhouses and stables’ of Shepherd House, Alexander created a menagerie of animal models that ‘contained not merely ordinary fowls and farmyard animals, goats, kids and turkey-cocks, but peacocks, twenty varieties of sea-gulls and at one time a nine-foot python’ (Martin Hardie, Water-Colour Painting in Britain, London: Batsford, vol 3, 1968, page 207). However, plants remained as important as animals as a subject of his painting and, in 1909, he illustrated J H Crawford’s The Wild Flowers. In 1910, he and his family moved into Musselburgh, and settled at Links Lodge, 10 Links Place (now Balcarres Road), between the golf course and the River Esk. It would remain his home for the rest of his life.
Following the move, Alexander initially worked hard and continued to exhibit widely, and was elected a full member of the RWS in 1910 and of the RSW in 1911, and a Royal Scottish Academician in 1913. In that latter year, he visited Amsterdam to carry out some drawings at the Royal Zoo. However, by 1914, he had ‘virtually ceased painting’, becoming involved ‘in voluntary work and in teaching at Edinburgh College of Art in place of David Alison’ (Julian Halsby, Scottish Watercolours 1740-1940, 1986, page 148). In 1915, he donated a group of his watercolours of birds to the British Museum, a suggestion that he was putting his affairs in order. In February 1918, he was healthy enough to be ‘an officer in the 1/1st MVR, E Company, Musselburgh’ (according to the Musselburgh News). However, he soon suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed on his left side and subject to persistent ill health. Edwin Alexander died in Musselburgh on 23 April 1926. In the following year, The Scottish Gallery mounted a memorial exhibition of Alexander’s work, while Gurney & Jackson published an edition of Charles St John’s Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands, which included illustrations by both Edwin Alexander and his father’s friend, George Denholm Armour.
Edwin Alexander’s daughter, Sarah Dorothea (known as Sally), became a painter and sculptor. In 1940, she married the paediatrician, Dr Eric Dott, a son of Peter McOmish Dott, and grandson of Aitken Dott. His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum; and Glasgow Museums.