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Art in Scotland
Thomas Duncan


THOMAS DUNCAN, R.S.A., A.R.A.
Born, 24th May 1807; died, 25th May 1845.

Although only living till the age of thirty-eight, Duncan was one of the most brilliant painters of the Scottish school, and his works fairly entitle him to rank as one of the most eminent artists of the nineteenth century. He was born at Kinclaven in Perthshire, and educated at the county town, during which time he showed a decided talent for art, one of his early artistic efforts being the scenery which he painted for an amateur dramatic representation of c Rob Roy.' His parents, who looked upon art as an unprofitable occupation, endeavoured to dissuade him from following the profession, and induced him to enter the office of a lawyer in Perth. But after fulfilling his term of engagement, he left for Edinburgh, and became a student at the Trustees' Academy, where he made rapid progress in figure-drawing under Sir William Allan. The first notable result of his study was a picture of a Milkmaid, succeeded by Old Mortality and the Braw Wooer. Among his early exhibited works at the Edinburgh exhibitions and those of the Dilettanti Society of Glasgow were Catherine Glover listening to the Monk; Cuddie Headrigg visiting Jenny Dennison, a picture as remarkable for its pleasant humour as for its delightful colour; and a portrait of John Graham (-Gilbert), the artist. At a very early age he was appointed to teach the class for colour in the Trustees' Academy, and some time later, that of drawing in the same. He exhibited very few pictures in London, but those which he did, made a very decided impression. The first shown in the Royal Academy was Prince Charles entering Edinburgh, 1840 (engraved by Bacon); followed by the Waefu' Heart, 1841; Deer-stalking in 1842; and the very noble picture of Prince Charles asleep in the Cave, in 1843, which was exhibited within the same year at the Academy in Edinburgh, and engraved by Ryall. His other contributions to the Scottish Academy's exhibition of the same year consisted of a portrait of Patrick Robertson, Water from the Fountain, and Phoebe Dawson. His Anne Page and Slender was also exhibited at the Royal Academy, from which body in iS, by the force of his own merit, he obtained the unasked honour of being elected one of its Associates. In the following year, to the same exhibition he contributed a Cupid and the Martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill.

Strong and effective in expression, he was never vulgar or exaggerated, and was graceful and natural in his drawing without ever degenerating into weakness. His compositions have all the dramatic interest suggested by the most perfect acting, without the least suggestiveness of the stage; and the minor qualities of art, such as texture, are all present without being obtrusive. Great, however, as Duncan was in all these, he was still greater in colour: brilliant and sparkling, or quiet and serious, according as his subject required, he was seldom below his high level in this respect, and at his weakest was far above mediocrity. He possessed a keen insight into character, and a delicate appreciation of female beauty, and consequently ranked high as a portrait- painter. Lord Cockburn speaks of his portrait of Dr Chalmers as being the best likeness of that clergyman, and adds, "There is a good print of it by Burton. It is very like him in his contemplative mood, but in this alone." He was most successful in his portraits of ladies, of which that of Lady Stuart of Allanbank, in the Scottish National Gallery, is a favourable example. His reputation, however, rests mainly on his Scottish historical and other subject-pictures. The Entry of Prince Charles into Edinburgh after the Battle of Prestonpans is a large work full of figures, the principal of which are portraits. The prince is said to be a good likeness of John Sheriff, the animal-painter. The figure of M'Donald, who killed Colonel Gardiner at the battle, was painted from Horatio MacCulloch. Among the other heads are portraits of Professor Wilson, and Duncan himself; and a tipsy man, at the extreme left of the picture, is a good likeness of Robert Maxwell of Glasgow, an amateur artist and great chum of Macnee and MacCulloch. The fine picture of Prince Charles asleep in the Cave (the prince again painted from Sheriff) is perhaps the most popular of all his pictures: the tired and exhausted figure of the prince is stretched along the middle of the picture, watched over by Flora Macdonald, between them lying the long gleaming blade of a Scottish broadsword; the background of the picture is filled in by a group of the outlaws who gave him shelter peering out into the darkness, the occupants of the cave having evidently been startled by some alarm; one of the Highlanders rests his hand on a hound to prevent it from baying; and the whole scene is lit by the lurid glare of a fire burning near the rudely improvised couch of the weary refugee. The figure of Flora Macdonald is said to have been painted from Mrs Hope Johnstone. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1843, where it attracted a considerable amount of attention, and stamped the artist at once as a great painter.

[During the exhibition of this picture, Miss M. Macdonald, a lineal descendant of Flora, wrote very indignantly to the Editor of the 'Art Journal,' as if the artist had in the picture cast an aspersion on the fair fame of the heroine. After accusing the painter of falsifying history, she writes, " When that lady assisted his Royal Highness to escape, she was attended only by her servant, Neil Mackeachin (ancestor to the late Marshall Macdonald), and escape was effected by these two alone, and the prince wore at the time a woman's dress, If Duncan's picture be right, the Hanoverians of that day would have good reason for suspecting the virtue of Miss Macdonald; but the fair fame of that lady was as untarnished as the bravery of the house from whence she sprung." It is needless to add to this, that if the painter was wrong in the matter of dress, it was a warrantable licence, and the treatment of the picture affords no ground for other objections.]

His large picture of the Death of John Brown of Priesthill, the Covenanter, slain by Claverhouse, is full of pathos: the slaughtered carrier is lying prostrate on the ground, his wife and two children, who were spectators of the tragedy, cling to each other in the agony of grief and despair; and the carcass of the Covenanter's dog lies near him, butchered by the retreating dragoons, who have left the little homestead dismantled of its roof. In consequence of ill health telling seriously upon the artist while this work was on hand, some portions of the carrier's family were finished by his friend Macnee.

The Scottish National Gallery is fortunate in the possession of no fewer than eight works by Duncan, including his own portrait, presented by fifty Scottish artists. Among these, his picture of Anne Page and Slender is his most representative work. "Fair Mistress Anne Page," dainty and charming, in all the bloom of her loveliness, partly leaning over the corner of a stair balustrade, invites Slender to join their party, whose affectation and awkwardness, as he tries to excuse himself, are evidently the result of the beauty and graciousness beaming down upon him from the fair face of Mistress Anne. At an open window, in the centre of the picture, Bardolph is seen whispering some humorous remarks to Sir John Falstaff, who is leering at the scene going on outside—a particularly fine passage of colour not unlike J. Runciman's, which in the hands of a lesser artist would surely have degenerated into vulgarity. A cleverly painted dog is on the steps; the story is further carried out by the introduction of a boy bearing a pie and a tankard; and the whole work is glowing with the most perfect colour, and pervaded by great beauty.

The Sheepshanks collection at South Kensington contains his Auld Robin Gray; and at Taymouth Castle are the last studies upon which he was engaged, consisting of Wishart administering the Sacrament before his Execution, and Queen Victoria at Tay- mouth, painted for the Marquis of Breadalbane. He bore a high name as a patient, kind, and anxious instructor of the students who had the good fortune to be under his care, and was universally esteemed.


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