Born Wilsontown, Lanarkshire, on 27 March 1808, he originally worked as a handloom weaver
in Paisley before training as a stone mason.
As a boy he impressed his friends with his skill as a wood carver, earning the nickname
'the mouse genius' after carving a cage with a wheel turned by a mouse which was attached to
a functioning model loom and a weaver. This automaton was displayed to great acclaim in the
window of his family home.
He also proved himself adept at modelling in clay, two of his favourite works being
an elephant which he regarded as a masterpiece, and Wallace's Helmet, which he
modelled on the head of his young brother, John.
Serving his apprenticeship as a stone mason with the builder Hall McLatchie, he carved the
Corinthian capitals on the Glasgow Royal Exchange in Royal Exchange Square (now GOMA
which he earned a further nickname: 'The Young Athenian' (1827-32).
Setting up a studio in Paisley soon afterwards, he worked principally as a
portraitist producing marble busts of Paisley officials, businessmen and poets
including, William Motherwell; David Dick; Sheriff Campbell;
Prof John Wilson (Christopher North) and Dr James Kerr.
After moving to Glasgow, c. 1830, where he set up a studio in Miller Street,
his success enabled him to move to London in search of the cream of society patronage,
1835-50, during which time he impressed Sir Francis Chantrey, who recommended him to his
Settling at 8 High Holborn, he continued to receive commissions from his Scottish
admirers, including requests for portraits in wax of William Motherwell (1835)
and James Ewing of Strathleven (1845), and a marble bust of the Glasgow architect
He also visited Paris in the 1830s, where he copied paintings in the Louvre, and then travelled
to Vienna, where he sculpted a bust of Archibald Oswald (1841). He also spent a few months
studying and seeking commissions in Italy.
Returning to London, he was later feted in Paisley with a banquet on the success of his
marble statue of Sir James Shaw at Kilmarnock (1848), and received commissions for
marble busts of Prof. John Wilson and Colonel Mure, for Paisley and Renfrew.
In 1849, he offered a 'transparency' of Minerva Pacific to Glasgow Town Council
for use during the Queen's visit in August 1849, but it is not known if the offer was accepted
or how the transparency would have been used.
Fillans also produced a number of cemetery monuments, each incorporating a marble portrait bust,
medallion or symbolic sculpture. Amongst them are his monuments to James Dick, Old Kirkyard,
Ayr (1840), and Dugald Moore (1841) and Dr Jacobus Brown in Glasgow's Necropolis (1846).
A poet as well as a sculptor, he particularly admired the Glasgow poet William
Motherwell and, as well as executing a number of portraits of him throughout their
careers, Fillans eventually produced his monument for the Necropolis, spending the night
before its dedication carving its details (1851).
The monument has since lost the Parian marble bust of Motherwell from beneath its Tudor canopy, c. 1970s,
and its incised friezes of scenes from Motherwell's life and works, e.g., Halberd The Grim,
are decaying rapidly.
At the time of Fillan's own death, in Glasgow on 27 September 1852, he was working
on two other monuments, the John Henry Alexander Monument, for the Necropolis, which was
A H Ritchie
; and the monument to his own father in Paisley's Woodside Cemetery
(designed 1852), for which he modelled a seated figure of Grief, or Rachel Weeping For Her
This became his own memorial after being completed in marble by
in 1880. Mossman
also carved Fillans' portrait on its pedestal.
The monument was paid for partly fom the proceeds of James Paterson's book Memoir of the Late James
Fillans, Sculptor, Paisley,which was published in 1854, and which is illustrated with a number of
engravings of the sculptor's work.
A portrait of Fillans from the book, together with images of his Dr James Kerr portrait relief,
William Motherwell bust and Grief, are reproduced in David Rowand's books Pictorial History
of Paisley (pp. 27, 28) and Silver Threads (2000, pp. 77-80). The latter includes a portrait of the
sculptor when he was in Paris in 1835.
Also a painter, he exhibited at the RA
1837-50. One of his daughters, Wilhelmina Fillans, was also a sculptor. A photograph
of Fillans and his daughters, of c. 1845, by the photography pioneers Hill and Adamson, is in the collection of the SNPG
Fillan's portrait was painted by Sir Daniel Macnee. This was exhibited at the Old Glasgow Exhibition in 1894 (cat. 159).