John Ernest Aitken was the son of James Aitken, a Scottish-born maritime artist. He studied at the Manchester, Liverpool and Wallasey Schools of Art and was also taught by his father with whom he shared a studio in Liverpool. Aitken and his father permanently moved to the Isle of Man in 1911, although they had visited the Island from 1894. A few months after moving to Port St Mary, Aitken built an artist’s studio at the rear of Lime Street.
He was a prolific and commercially successful artist with some of his paintings being reproduced as calendars and prints. The most popular of these was The Herring Boats, Port St Mary, produced by Bregazzi’s, the Douglas firm of picture framers. In his obituary Aitken was described as:
A man of the highest integrity of a retiring and kindly disposition, Mr Aitken’s whole life was dedicated to his art.
Like his father Aitken specialised in maritime art from seascapes and coastal views to working harbour scenes. His first exhibited work, The Grey North Sea was shown in 1907 at the Walker Art Gallery. Throughout his fifty year artistic career he continued to paint Manx, Dutch and Scottish fishing ports and harbours.
The extent of his commercial success can be measured by the existence of three sketchbooks dating from 1908 to 1957, which contain the details and thumbnail sketches of almost 2,400 paintings. These acted as stock books for Aitken, allowing him to keep track of his paintings whilst they were being framed, exhibited and hopefully sold. They also enabled him to gauge how commercially successful a particular view or scene was by how quickly it sold. As a result certain scenes may appear only once or twice whilst others, such as Manx coastal scenes and Dutch towns, might be frequently repeated.