James Cumming was born in 1922 in Dunfermline, Fife and studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1939 to 1941. He won a travelling Scholarship to Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, which resulted his acclaimed series of Hebridean paintings that are expressive and abstract.
His approach to art has been described as part-archaeological and part-sociologically-scientific. His first pieces were figurative and abstract, painting portraits that were dynamic. He would apply paint and scrape it away with a pallet knife, exposing different layers of paint. His later paintings were more geometric, inspired by his experimentation with an electronic microscope. The result was a series of paintings which focused on chromosomes. Following this, Cumming later turned to focus on still lives. However throughout all of his work, Cumming has continued to employ a restricted colour palette; experimentations with which he demonstrates an acute sensitivity.
James served 5 years with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve from 1941 to 1946, after which he resumed his studies until 1950 and was awarded a post-graduate and travelling scholarship. In 1950 James was appointed Lecturer in History and Tutor in Painting at Edinburgh College of Art and taught there for many years. He received a Royal Scottish Academy Award in 1951 and in 1955 he had a one-man show at Gallery One in London, followed by many more and particularly at the Loomshop Gallery in Lower Largo, Fife. He also exhibited in many group exhibitions in England, Scotland, France, Canada, Wales, Holland, Switzerland, and New York.
A series of retrospective exhibitions was held including the Lothian Region Gallery, Edinburgh in 1981. John was a member of the Society of Scottish Artists and President from 1958 to 1961. He was also a member of the Royal Scottish Academy for whom he was Treasurer & Secretary and a Member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours.
For a long time his inspiration came from life on the Isle of Lewis, but in the early 1960s he started to examine abstract themes. In 1964 he was awarded an International Scholarship in the Humanities, Harvard University, USA. Other awards included a Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours prize in 1977 and Lothian Region Prize in the RSW Centenary Exhibition, Edinburgh in 1980. He died in 1991. A memorial show was held in 1995 at The Scottish Gallery, in Edinburgh, where James lived.