Obituary: Michael Peter Gill, teacher and curator

Head of art at Fettes who went on to lead the Design Centre at George Watson's College. Picture: Contributed
Head of art at Fettes who went on to lead the Design Centre at George Watson's College. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 12 November, 1934, in Glasgow. Died: 26 March, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 80.

Michael Gill will be fondly remembered for his contributions to the arts as a teacher, curator and musical theatre producer.

As a child Mike, as he was best known, moved from Glasgow to Aberdeen with his mother. He went to Aberdeen Grammar where his artistic talents were acknowledged when he won the school’s Samuel Pope Medal for Art and a much coveted place in 1956 at Gray’s School of Art, where, by the age of 23, he gained a postgraduate diploma.

Thereafter he was selected along with the brightest and best of graduates from Scotland’s four art colleges to complete a summer residency at Hospitalfield House outside Arbroath. That idyllic spell spent further developing his artistic talent came to an abrupt end as he was called up for national service. He was drafted into the Royal Air Force, serving in Aden.

Mike’s mother doted on him and his calm, confident manner must in some measure be attributed to the unconditional positive regard she would have bestowed on him.

On his discharge in 1959 Mike got a taste for teaching by working in schools in Aberdeenshire. After gaining a teaching qualification at Moray House School of Education in Edinburgh he took up a post in 1962 as art teacher at Madras College in St Andrews, a few years later being promoted to special assistant.

In 1968 he was appointed head of art at Fettes College in Edinburgh. Seeking further challenges he applied in 1971 for the position of head of art at George Watson’s College. The job held the attraction of developing his subject in a school set for expansion as it amalgamated with George Watson’s Ladies College and in 1975 became a large co-educational school.

The job held another attraction. On the horizon was the development of a Design Centre under whose roof the hitherto separate departments of art, home economics and technical education were to be housed.

As head of the Design Centre Mike managed three principal teachers and together they ensured that the arts and crafts achieved an equal footing with the academic subjects and sports that the school was renowned for. One of the visions of the Design Centre was, through a multi-talented team, to develop the art curriculum beyond drawing and painting to include the crafts of print making and sculpting which were Mike’s teaching specialities, as well as photography, pottery, ceramics and jewellery.

The interdisciplinary working intended between the three different subjects may not, however, have been as seamlessly fertile as originally intended.

The centre enabled the development of a sheltered garden providing living resources for drawing and painting classes. In the garden Mike also positioned a work in bronze, by the Edinburgh born Victorian sculptor George Anderson Lawson, of a reclining naked youth previously incongruously deposited in front of the War Memorial at the other side of the school campus.

The sculpture was put to good use in the Design Centre, aiding the development of anatomical understanding in the young artists. But Mike’s energies were in no way confined to the design centre. He was officially the curator and recorder of all works of artistic merit and value in and around the school. With his wife Shiona, the now distinguished art historian and museum curator, he ensured that the art works and papers which former Watson’s pupil James Stewart-Lockhart had gathered together at the turn of the 20th century while a colonial administrator, latterly as the first British Civil Commissioner of Weihaiwei in the Shandong Province, were publicly exhibited in Edinburgh’s City Art Centre for the first time in 1982. Now known as the Chinese Collection, these artefacts had been donated to Watson’s in 1967 by Stewart-Lockhart’s daughter Mary.

Another stream of energy which came from Mike was his lead role in musical productions. He staged these on an annual basis at Watson’s for a number of years and in his spare time he was impresario of productions at the Assembly Rooms during the Fringe Festival.

It was Mike who masterminded the dismantling and transportation of an organ with all its panoply of pipes from a de-consecrated church in Govan in Glasgow to be reassembled in Watson’s main hall.

Mike was a connoisseur of all things fine, not only in the visual arts and music but also in food and drink and architecture. He bought and restored a three-storey terraced townhouse in the New Town. Later, in the early 1990s, he and his family moved to a farmhouse near Harthill in North Lanarkshire in order to be half way between Edinburgh and Glasgow where Shiona held a post as a museum curator.

The house and its 12.5 acre estate also became a labour of love as Mike ensured the planting of more than ten acres of mixed woodland, thus making a major positive contribution to the biodiversity of the area.

Mike’s energy and enthusiasm was all the more impressive given that he was diagnosed with diabetes in his early 40s. At that time his life expectancy was thought – obviously wrongly – to be up to his 60s. Dealing with hypoglycaemic reactions was no easy thing, however, and a fall resulted in permanent injury to his spine, the pain of which he had to endure during his later years in teaching.

The fall also resulted in a serious head injury and ultimately his death six days later in the neurosurgical ward in Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital. Mike Gill is survived by his wife Shiona and his son Ben.