Gourlay Steell, was born in Edinburgh in 1819.
The son of John Steell, a prestigious wood carver and Margaret Gourlay of Dundee. Both Gourlay and his brother John, who later became a sculptor, trained under their father from a young age. At the age of 13, Gourlay displayed his first work at the Royal Scottish Academy which was a model of a greyhound. Steell continued to exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy throughout his lifetime. Gourlay Steell continued his artistic studies under history painter William Allan at the School of the Board of Manufacturers. William Allan was elected president of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1834 and became known for his scenes of Russian life. Steell went on to work in the studio of Robert Scott Lauder who was an history painter greatly inspired by novels by Walter Scott. In 1846 Steell became an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and went on to be elected at Royal Academician in 1859. In 1872 Steell was appointed official animal painter to Queen Victoria succeeding Sir Edwin Landseer. In 1882 he succeeded Sir William Fettes Douglas as curator of the National Gallery of Scotland. Steell died in in 1894 and was buried in Morningside Cemetery in Edinburgh.