William Kennedy is best known as a successful businessman and for playing a major role in the fledgling shale oil industry of central Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. He bequeathed one painting to Glasgow, The Sacrifice of Marcus Curtius by Luigo Garzi, in 1899.
William was born in Biggar, South Lanarkshire in 1836 to William, an innkeeper and Mary Scott.(1) Little is known of his early years but he moved to Glasgow when aged sixteen and joined the firm of P & R Fleming, ironmongers which had branches at 29 Argyle Street and 18 Stockwell Street. He then moved to Henry Field and Son of Buchanan Street.(2)
The first gas lighting in Glasgow was introduced in 1805 and by the mid-nineteenth century there was huge demand for gas heating and lighting in homes and Fields was well placed for the fitting of pipes, meters and other equipment. The city’s gas manufacturing and supply industry was placed under municipal control in 1869. While at Fields mineral oil was becoming a popular fuel for lighting and William assisted with its development with enthusiasm. He ensured that the best oil lamps on the market were stocked in the shop and he promoted the sale of lighting oil all over Scotland and the North of Ireland.(3)
William married Margaret Law from Linlithgow in 1860 (4) and they had three girls and a boy (also William). They were living at 39 Devon Street, Glasgow in 1861(5) and lived in Govan and Pollokshields areas for many years, and were residing at a detached villa at 32 Newark Drive in Pollokshields by 1891.(6)
James ‘paraffin’ Young was the pre-eminent ‘Father of the Oil Industry ‘ who succeeded in producing, by distilling cannel coal at a low heat, a fluid which resembled paraffin wax and in 1851 his Bathgate works became the first commercial oil-works in the world.(7) William Kennedy succeeded Young in continuing to develop manufacturing processes for new products and markets.
In 1861 William joined West Calder Oil Company and stayed with them for seven years producing paraffin. He then became actively associated with Oakbank Oil Company, West Lothian and was general manager until 1877. In that year The Broxburn Oil Company was formed for the purpose of acquiring, from Robert Bell, his rights as lessee of the oil, shales and other minerals of Lord Cardross, at Broxburn in Linlithgowshire. Bell was a pioneer of the shale industry and was the first in Scotland to distil oil from shale. William was appointed Managing Director of Broxburn Oil Company on its foundation, at a time when fierce competition from USA and Russia made life difficult for many businesses. He remained as its managing Director till his death in 1899. The Broxburn works were the first to challenge the scale of Youngs Addiewell Works and it was equipped to undertake all processes necessary to transform shale into a full range of oil and wax products, including the manufacture of candles. The works site covered an area of 250 acres and employed approximately 1700 workers. The modern equipment enabled the company to stay ahead of the competition for the next ten years. (8)
Prior to 1876 William was appointed Secretary to the Scottish Mineral Oil Association and was subsequently elected as its President. He was also a director of Niddrie and Benhar Coal Company Limited, the Glenboig Union Fireclay Company Limited and the National Insurance Company of Great Britain. He also entered local politics as a county councillor for Linlithgowshire and was a Justice of the Peace for the same county.(9)
In the 1890s William moved to 21 Huntly Gardens, a fine townhouse in Glasgow’s west end.(10) In ailing health he died on 20th May 1899 leaving a significant estate of £44,600.(11) In his Will he left the painting The Sacrifice of Marcus Curtius 1715-20 to Glasgow.(12) At the time of his death it was attributed to Nicholas Poussin, an influential French baroque artist. It is now attributed to Luigi Garzi who was influenced by Poussin’s classical style while in Rome. The scene depicts the young Roman who sacrificed himself to the gods of Hades.
This painting was previously owned by John Bell who, with his brother Matthew, founded J and M P Bell & Co, the largest pottery in Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century and which produced a wide range of high-quality products for the home market and for export. John amassed a huge collection of paintings and objects during his lifetime for North Park House, which he had built adjacent to the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow (later used as the home of the BBC). He died intestate in 1880 and his collection of around 800 paintings was sold at auctions in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. The sales catalogues list paintings by Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Raphael, and many more apparently by world=renowned artists. However, many of his paintings are now thought to be copies, and some fakes, but he did achieve sales of £50,000 in a struggling market.(13) William Kennedy may have purchased The Sacrifice of Marcus Curtius at one of these auctions and it is one of only a few objects to remain in Glasgow from Bell’s collection.
(2) Dictionary of Scottish Business Biography “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”
(3) The Baillie, vol XLV111 No 1237, July 1896, “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”
(7) www.engineeringhalloffame.org, Scottish Engineering hall of Fame/James Young
(8) Dictionary of Scottish Business Biography “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”
(9) The Baillie, vol XLV111 No 1237, July 1896, “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”
(11) Dictionary of Scottish Business Biography “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”
(13) Mitchell Library, Sales Catalogues John Bell Jan 1881, “©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections”