Laurie | Arthur Pillans | 1861-1949 | principal of Heriot-Watt College

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Arthur Pillans Laurie (1861-1949) was a chemist and principal of Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh. He was encouraged into his unusual branch of chemistry, analysis of paintings, by the famous painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Laurie specialised in the chemistry of pigmentation in art. Laurie attended Edinburgh Academy, the University of Edinburgh, and finally, King's College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with first class honours in the science tripos in 1884.

Laurie split his time between academic work in chemistry, roles in government committees and book writing. His academic career included a lecturer's position in chemistry and physics at the St Mary's Hospital Medical School, the chair in chemistry at the Royal Academy of Arts, and an advisory post at the Courtauld Institute of Arts. The crowning achievement of his career was his appointment as principal of Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, in 1900. In government committees, Laurie occupied many places, in bodies - mainly relating to education or industry - ranging from the Commission to the Royal Commission on Secondary Education to the slightly more obscure Home Office Departmental Committee on Pottery Manufacture. Laurie wrote many books, mainly on subjects relating to paintings.

Laurie's work on paintings was, in many ways, ground-breaking. He used chemical analysis to determine the make-up of paint samples of pictures, in order to determine the origin and age of paintings. He also introduced infra-red photography of paintings to see hidden layers of paint, covered under later reworkings. This allowed the identification of the true date of a self-portrait by Rembrandt, the part of the painting with the date inscribed having been painted over.

He was involved in a number of learned societies, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy of Arts.


Laurie was influenced in his career choice by artist William Holman Hunt.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

The Food of Plants, (1893)

Facts About Processes, Pigments, and Vehicles - a Manual for Art Students, (1895)

Greek and Roman Methods of Painting, ( 1910)

The Materials of the Painter's Craft in Europe and Egypt, from the Earliest Times to the End of the XVIIth Century, ( 1910)

The Pigments and Mediums of the Old Masters, (1914)

The Painter's Methods and Materials, ( 1926)

A Study of Rembrandt and the Painting of his School, ( 1929)

The Brush Work of Rembrandt and his School, ( 1932)

Pictures and Politics, (1934)

New Light on Old Masters, (1935)

The Case for Germany, (1939)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1884: Awarded first-class degree in the science tripos, King's College Cambridge

1895: Appointed Lecturer in Physics and Chemistry at St Mary's Hospital Medical School

1895: Appointed Assistant Commisioner to the Royal Commission on Secondary Education

1898: Appointed Examiner in Chemistry to the Royal College of Physicians, London

1900-1928: Appointed Principal of Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh

1912: Professor of Chemistry the Royal Academy of Arts


List of sources for the biographical information:

Year Book of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1950 (Session 1948-1949), (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1951)

Who's Who 1938, London, A&C Black Ltd, 1937)