top of page
  • Writer's pictureLilium

William McLaren - Muses & The Beau Monde

William McLaren, born in Ferniegair, Hamilton, 1923, was a Scottish Illustrator.

McLaren grew up in Cardenden, Fife, Scotland but stuggled with a crippling handicap that affected his feet. He attended Beath High School, Cowdenbeath, before going to college in Edinburgh. In 1944 he earned his Diploma and the Highly Commended Post Diploma from Edinburgh College of Art.

Edinburgh College of Art

After graduation and with a bursary from the Andrew Grant Fund he left Scotland and visited Italy and France. Throughout his life he remained a francophile and was fluent in French.

William McLaren

McLaren's style was influenced by the artist Joan Hassall. Studying the Old Masters on his trips to France and Italy, McLaren honed his skills in a wide variety of pictorial techniques.

In the 1950s, his London agent found him commercial work and his illustrations appeared regularly for sixteen years in the Radio Times, the BBC's weekly guide to radio and television. He continued to earn a living as a commercial illustrator working forThe Listener and The Sphere (magazine).

With a move to Edinburgh in 1963, McLaren's social circle widened and he was commissioned by Lord Linlithgow to create a series of paintings for the staircase at Hopetoun House. This was the breakthrough for McLaren, leading to a number of decorative commissions in private houses and public buildings where he developed his trompe l'oeil style. He painted murals at Wemyss Castle, St Adrian's Church in West Wemyss, Hawthornden Castle and Tyninghame House.

He became a prolific book illustrator and designer of dust jackets for over 150 books. He is now remembered most for his illustrations for Beverley Nichols gardening book series which is why I wanted to put a spotlight on him for it is his illustrations that truly make the books pieces of art in their own right. Below is an excerpt from Sunlight on the Lawn, the final book of Beverley Nichols 'Merry Hall trilogy'. Beverley is trying to decide what is missing from the design of the garden and if the N.B. (Nice Balustrade) is too much, so he asks William for his artistic opinion.


Sunlight on the Lawn

William McLaren is very small, very much a Scot, and so utterly absorbed by the excitement of being an artist that even when he goes for a walk over the fields you have the feeling that his footsteps are tracing an intricate design. That is perhaps the reason why, when you go for a walk with William, you seldom reach the place you were aiming at. William's fingers are incapable of drawing an ugly line; even when he writes a postcard, at top speed, he produces an exquisite eighteenth-century script, with perhaps a garland, or a scroll, or even a cherub, hovering over the the occasional confusion of the postman. Incidentally William has some aesthetic theories that are quite enthralling. He believes - if I am not misquoting him - that the standards of beauty are fixed, eternal and capable of scientific demonstration...that there is a sort of divine geometry of art to whose immutable laws all the great masterpieces conform, and that the working of these laws can be proves, to an infinite fraction of an inch, in - let us say - the smallest fold of drapery in a fresco by Giotto.

I was therefore more than somewhat gratified when William, after pacing up and down my balustrade and making a mass of calculations in his notebook, with acute angles and right-angles crossing and re-crossing, turned to me and said: 'As far as it goes it is perfect. It conforms exactly with the lines of the water-garden. The spacing of the steps is precisely as it should be, And the whole thing is right with the lie of the land.

This was high praise. I was evidently in accord with the Divine Geometrician, which was very consoling. But what did William mean by 'as far as it goes'?

'I just feel that it isn't complete,' said William.

'So do I. What do you suggest?'

That's up to you. It's your design.'

I took a deep breath. I knew what I wanted but I was afraid that William might disapprove, or even laugh. I wanted pillars, a semi-circle of nice Doric pillars. But nice Doric pillars - N.D.P.s - were even more socially ambitious than N.B.s. Whereas N.B.s suggested stately homes, N.D.P.s implied palaces, and if I spent the rest of my life wandering about in the shadow of N.D.P.s I should almost certainly develop delusions of grandeur.

Another deep breath. Then I said to William: 'I should like some Doric pillars. About eight - just here - in a semi-circle.

To my great relief William nodded. 'So would I.'

'I thought you might think the idea absurd.'

'Why? They would be just right.'

'I believe they would. There's only one thing that worries me... what would they be for?'

William looked at me in surprise. 'Does that matter?'


Beverley Nichols, by William McLaren, painted in front of his Nice Balustrade and nice Doric Pillars with "One"


He died in 1987, aged 64, leaving behind a range of work that will surprise and delight many people. In 2010 director Jim Hickey and producer Robin Mitchell made a 51-minute film in the first attempt to document the life and work of the Scottish painter. DVD's are available via a phone call to the production company.



Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

by of

Beverley Nichols Joan Hassall


bottom of page