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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter I


Introduction—Birth and Parentage—Early Training—The Parish School—The Minister’s Family—The Manse of Dailly—Early Aspirations for Art— First Efforts—Thomas Thomson and Lord Hailes.

IT is now over half a century since the quiet little parish of Duddingston lost its Artist Minister, and Scotland one of her most distinguished sons. The fame of John Thomson is not, like that of Scott, Burns, or Allan Ramsay, on the surface. There are thousands of educated Scotsmen who, perhaps, have never heard his name mentioned—who may never have seen or heard of his works; and yet while he lived, and long years after his death, the man was, nay, he still is, an influence and power in the growth of Scottish art, more than is generally supposed.

His life, like that of most men of genius, was a dual one. By profession a minister of the gospel, he is better known to us now as a painter of landscapes, as Burns the ploughman, and Scott the clerk of session are better known as their country’s song-writer and novelist.

In his day John Thomson was distinguished among his contemporaries; and if of late years, amid the crowd of literary, artistic, and scientific talent which has made the nineteenth century famous, his name has in some measure fallen out of sight, it is our purpose, if possible, to rectify this, and to place before our readers some adequate estimate of the life and work of this great artist.

John Thomson’s life cannot be said to have been an eventful one in the sense of exhibiting striking vicissitudes or romantic episodes; but neither can it be said to be a ‘humdrum’ life, devoid of interest. On the contrary, we shall find that it is a centre round which there gathers much that is of deepest interest in our national life, arising largely from his close intimacy and correspondence with the bright circle of literary and artistic society which, during the first half of last century, adorned the Scottish Capital. If, on the one hand, we find in him a man inclined to be retiring and modest, with no desire to shine as a star of the first, or indeed of any, magnitude, but only wishing to be allowed to pursue in peace the bent of his genius, we shall on the other hand find in him a man with a purpose, and with a quiet unobtrusiveness doing successfully what that genius prompted, leaving the world all the richer and better for his work.

Few human lives are without some interest, and if properly viewed, will fail to yield some lessons for guidance, or warning, or encouragement. In that of the Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston we hope to present the salient features of one who deserves well of his country, who by his artistic genius exercised no small influence over Scottish art in its infancy, and whose merit deserves more recognition than it has hitherto received.

It has been said that the history of Scottish art has yet to be written. In the following pages we do not impose upon ourselves any task so ambitious, but we shall be enabled, we think, to trace in some measure the beginnings of the National School of Art which within the past century has been so remarkably developed, which has

produced some notable painters, and which has been recognised all over the world for the remarkable force, vigour, and truthfulness to Nature which have characterised its work.

In John Thomson we will find a pioneer in the founding of Scottish landscape art. Love of Nature does not make an artist; but love of Nature must be in the heart of the painter who seeks to imitate Nature. Nature is the perfection of art, the ideal to which all true art aspires, and there can be no just imitation of Nature without art. It is the combination of the poetic sense with the manipulative power which constitutes the true artist, and enables him to represent to the senses of other men the secrets he has learned by patient waiting, for as Wordsworth truly says :—

‘Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ‘tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.’

Nature had been sadly neglected in this country, and the imitation of Nature in art had practically no existence at the beginning of last century. There were certainly plenty pictures scattered about in the mansions of our nobility, but these were mostly all the work of Continental artists. Portraits and figure pieces, battle-scenes and sea-fights, formed the staple of these, landscape being treated for the most part as merely an accessory to some scene of human action or mythical legend.

Thomson developed for himself a consciousness of the beauty of Nature, in her many moods and aspects of sunshine and shade, of gloom and grandeur, which he combined with a happy infusion of objects of historical or human interest, and was able to stimulate the public fancy by his poetic rendering of these as it had never before been touched by his countrymen.

The story of his life—and it is a comparatively simple one—is overshadowed by his work; but his surroundings were not commonplace, neither were his associates ordinary men. Born in the manse of the secluded Ayrshire village of Dailly, on the 1st September 1778, John Thomson was pre-eminently a son of the manse; his father, his grandfather, and possibly his great-grandfather before him having been ministers of the Church of Scotland.’

John Thomson never seems to have had the option of choosing his own career in life. That appears to have been settled for him without his being consulted in the matter. We are told he was destined from the cradle to follow his father’s profession as a minister, and, notwithstanding his own often-expressed desire when a boy that he would like to be an artist, he dutifully allowed his father’s predilection for the Church to influence his destiny so far that, while not giving up his love of art, he zealously—or perhaps as zealously as his tastes would permit, prosecuted his studies in divinity.

In the old Parish School of Daily he received the first elements of his education under douce old Dominie Welsh; and if architecturally it was little better than a shed, with a thatched roof and the plainest of furniture, and bad none of the appliances so much desiderated nowadays under School Board Acts and Privy Council regulations, yet it is to such schools most of Scotland’s ablest and best sons in the past were indebted for their early education. Knowing flO distinctions of rank, the Sons of the laird, as well as the sons of the manse, found themselves competing on the same form with the ploughman’s boys, or the labourer’s boys from the clachan. In the pursuit of knowledge, all alike started from the same level. The teacher might be, and indeed was undoubtedly, badly paid for his efforts; but as a rule he was content, and frequently had the satisfaction of finding some one or other of his old pupils returning, after years of absence, perhaps, in a foreign land, where he had possibly acquired wealth and influence, to thank him for the sound instruction he had received at the Parish School. The old Parochial School system was, as Lord Macaulay has said, ‘the foundation of Scotland’s proudest distinction, and proved the great source of her prosperity; and it is owing, not indeed solely, but principally to it, that in spite of the barrenness of her soil and the severity of her climate, her people have made such progress in agriculture, in manufactures, in commerce, in letters, in science, in all that constitutes civilisation as the Old World has never seen equalled, and as even the New World has scarcely seen surpassed.’

The minister’s four sons attended Mr. Welsh’s school in turn, John the youngest in all likelihood going as a little boy of seven years, a year or two after his elder brother Thomas had been sent to college; and that the reverence and respect for their first teacher was carried through life is evidenced by some kind messages communicating to him any step or success in after life, which they thought would give him satisfaction. Mr. Welsh had a salary of only £8, 6s. 8d.; and his whole emoluments, including perquisites as session-clerk, did not amount to £30 a year! On this scanty allowance he taught English, French, Latin, writing, arithmetic, and book-keeping; and he did one part of his duty so well that, as the Statistical Account states, ‘there was scarcely an individual in the parish who had not been taught to read and write English.’

John Thomson’s early years at the Parish School of Daifly came in time to be supplemented by attention to the Latin and Greek verbs in his father’s study, under the special tuition of his elder brother Thomas, who was then in the latter years of his college curriculum. Thomas, who at the age of fourteen had been sent to Glasgow University, in 1782, distinguished himself from the first, especially in Greek, in which class he carried off four prizes. Having gained in 1785 one of the bursaries founded by the first Earl of Dundonald, he continued a ‘gown’ student for the unusual period of seven years, taking his degree of M.A. in 1789. During the two latter years of his course he was partly attending the Theological and Law Classes at Glasgow, and partly directing the education of his brothers at the manse. He was still in much uncertainty as to his future. The claims of the Church, counterbalanced by his predilection for law, made him hesitate before making up his mind, and so he read on at both subjects, hoping that some way would be opened up whereby the money difficulty of entering the latter profession would be overcome.

This was the height of Thomas’s ambition. But the minister’s stipend was small, while his family was large; and the heavy fees required to pass as an advocate meant privation and self-denial for all. In the meantime, therefore, Thomas became the family tutor, and he so fixed himself in this respect that John used to say, half a century afterwards, that he had never quite shaken off the feeling of awe for his elder brother and master.

The value of the living of Dailly at that time, including manse and glebe, amounted at an average to £105 a year—not a very large sum, it must be said, on which to bring up a family comfortably. It is not known that the minister or his wife had any private fortune, yet for all that they lived socially with their neighbours, by all of whom they were much respected, exercised some hospitality, and gave their family the best education which the country afforded. The wonder is how it could be done; but the thing is so common in the manses of Scotland that it would be impertinent to praise the virtuous economy and the rigid self-denial required to accomplish such a feat.

The home influence of our Scottish manses has undoubtedly been a potent factor in the country’s well-being. From them example as well as precept have not only radiated to sweeten the lives of many hard-wrought sons and daughters of toil, but from them has flowed a perpetual stream of youth to take their places in the world’s work as leaders of thought, pioneers in science, ministers of religion, judges and lawyers, statesmen and merchant princes. As has been well said, ‘the manse is perhaps the most potent and typical institution in rural Scotland.’ The ‘big house,’ or whatever the place may be that corresponds to the English manor or hail, is much less important and characteristic.

The clergy of Scotland have been for the past three hundred years the real aristocracy, the true leaders and heroes of the people, interpreting and educating the national mind, possessing the popular imagination, filling the common heart. The lords and gentry, on the other hand—though it must be admitted there are many splendid exceptions—largely educated in England, and living there a great portion of the year, with their own social and political ambitions, have too frequently grown alien in mind and feeling towards their dependants, and as frequently fail to understand or to influence the people. But the clergy have been the most distinctive products of Scottish Education, which, so far from separating them from the people, has really qualified them to be their representatives and teachers. Much of the national love of learning has owed its existence to the way in which scholarship is to be found embodied in the manse, and the dignity it often gives to him who is esteemed as the father even more than the pastor of his people. ‘The opportunities to a young man trained under a manse roof are boundless. To him all things may well seem possible. He may come to occupy a wider and a richer world; he may live in cities and universities where learning is cultivated and culture professed; but the happiest place for the student, and the kindliest to the studies that really cultivate and refine, is the inside of a Scotch manse.’

And such was John Thomson’s early home. Among his father’s books ho had abundance of material for reading and reflection, while his study of science developed his habits of observation, so that astronomy, geology, optics, chemistry, and other cognate subjects constantly occupied his thoughts. He not only, it is said, eagerly read all the books he could procure on these subjects, but he early devoted much of his time to the study of their practical bearings.

Over and above all this leaning of his mind to occult problems, he in early boyhood evinced a strong love for the contemplation of Nature, especially in her more romantic and picturesque moods, and a desire to reproduce scenes and effects which struck his fancy. He would often, it is said, stroll to great distances from home to get glimpses of scenery under various aspects. His fancy outstripping the command of suitable material wherewith to realise his conceptions, he was frequently driven to record his impressions on the walls of the house, on pasteboard, paper, or any sort of material that could be operated upon. In this respect he, like Guido Reni, found in the commonest materials an’ outlet through his fingers for the struggling art-sense within; thus he was known to use charred wood and even candle-snuffings for pencils, while the smooth walls of some of the manse rooms, no doubt to his mother’s annoyance, were frequently appropriated and utilised instead of canvas.

Long years after, Robert Scott Lauder, his son-in-law, used to relate a story of an Edinburgh gentleman who happened to be travelling in the neighbourhood of Thomson’s birthplace. He got into conversation with an old country wight on the roadside. Being told where the stranger came from, the countryman said, ‘Ye‘ll ken ane John Thamson, a minister?’ ‘Oh,’ said the gentleman, ‘you mean Mr. Thomson of Duddingston, the celebrated painter; do you know him?’ ‘Me ken him?’ said the man, ‘I should think sae; it was me that first teached him to pent!’

Whether Thomson was ever sufficiently grateful to this gifted individual, and acknowledged his obligations, we have never been able to discover. Acquisition of knowledge, like blazes of genius, may sometimes be fortuitous; but it is equally true that the most stupendous results frequently follow from contemptible causes. The real facts of the case, we believe, are somewhat as follows:

Old Thomas M’Murtrie, the village carpenter, whose snug little cottage, which he called ‘The Rone,’ stood near to the manse gate, had completed a large chest for a parishioner preparing to emigrate to America. This he was desirous of having suitably embellished for so important a destination, where Art was supposed at that time to be at a discount. Who so able to give it the requisite finishing touches as Johnny Thomson, the minister’s young son? Johnny, or ‘Jock,’ as he was sometimes called by his brothers and sisters, was a great favourite with old Thomas the carpenter, and would spend many an hour in the old man’s workshop on his way to and from school. Thomas confided to Jock his wishes in regard to the decoration of the box, and persuaded him, without much difficulty, to paint the picture of a yellow bunting, or bobolink, on the lid. This was done to the evident satisfaction of all concerned, and being probably one of the earliest commissions which that young gentleman had yet executed, it is not surprising if his employer should have taken some little credit for his after success, and claimed the honour of teaching him to ‘pent’!

When young Thomson was told for the first time of his father’s intentions as to his future, it seems to have distressed him not a little. In his own unexpressed imagination he had formed the idea that the pursuit of Art was his proper vocation, and we are told the embryo artist actually went on his knees, and with tears in his eyes besought his father to make him a painter rather than a minister. The old gentleman, not thinking much of the prospect which Art held out as a respectable or lucrative employment, but as more a recreation for an idle hour, good-naturedly patted John on the head, and told him to go to his room and study his verbs.

But though endowed with warm affections and a deep veneration for parental authority, the bent of John’s genius was more powerful than either. He might study his verbs, but he could not abandon the study of Nature, nor could he deny himself the pleasure of reproducing with the crude materials within his reach such features of the Girvan valley as were daily disclosed to his eye.

"The Parish of Dailly has long been celebrated for its pastoral beauty, as well as for the hills and dales with which it is interspersed. Its little glens, with their babbling brooks, their winding paths, and lonely cottages, or the ancient castles and towers that from rock or meadow give point and character to the landscape, combine to make the district a fitting abode for a lover of Nature. It may very fittingly be described in those lines of ‘Delta,’ written upon the birthplace of James Thomson, the poet of the Seasons :

‘A rural church—some scatter’d cottage roofs
From whose secluded hearths the thin blue smoke
Silently wreathing through the breezeless air
Ascended, mingling with the summer sky—
A rustic bridge, mossy and weather-stained—
A fairy streamlet, singing to itself—
And here and there a venerable tree
In foliaged beauty: of these elements,
And only these, the simple scene was formed.’

Nor is it without poetical associations. It has given birth to one of the sweetest of Scotland’s minor poets—Hew Ainslie being born at Bargany, the seat of the Earl of Stair; while another, the poet-painter, William Bell Scott, has found a last resting-place within the precincts of its old churchyard.

Born and brought up amidst scenery which appealed strongly to the imagination, it is no wonder that a spirit so deeply imbued with artistic feeling as that of young Thomson should have been easily impressed with its influence, and should have sought to give expression to the inspiration of the art-sense within. As a striking proof of the earnestness with which he courted Nature, it is said he frequently rose as early as two o’clock in the morning, and would travel many miles in order that he might witness the sun rise from the top of Hadyard or Kirkhill, or study some peculiar effect as its rays penetrated the foliage of a wood. He would gradually retire deeper into the wood, and as he retreated would note and contemplate the change of effect, recalling and studying at home the various aspects of light and shade these presented, until he had mastered their expression.

The study of physical science soon inured young Thomson’s mind to look at everything in Nature through the medium of Law. He already regarded with interest every object around him that was individually striking or picturesque, but he was not satisfied until be had mastered all the elements of its constitution. He rightly looked upon the material universe as subject to a code of laws which it required the profoundest intellect to penetrate and the largest capacity to comprehend. Proceeding from this standpoint, his progress as a student of Nature was as certain as it was rapid.

He not only examined with an artist’s eye the running stream, its depths and shallows, its banks, with the trees and sedges that clothed them; but he studied especially the laws in virtue of which they were thus and not otherwise. He speedily recognised the fact that the mere mannerist does not represent Nature as she actually is, but builds up a garish piece of effect, with the sole view of striking the fancy of the ignorant and vulgar—not, certainly, to instruct them in the laws of the universe. Thus, having no opportunity of studying and criticising the works of other masters, he was led imperceptibly to fall back on Nature as his teacher and guide. Mere grace of outline and sensuous beauty of expression did not satisfy the demands of his rigidly truthful imagination. He sought a high ideal: he sought after truth, for as one has well said of him, ‘without truth, he regarded the most elaborately executed landscape as but a fantastic and idle dream.’

Thus young Thomson, working away in such method and with such materials as the limited facilities of his father’s parish supplied, cultivated, in addition to his English and Latin lessons, that artistic ‘taste which afterwards developed into such rare excellence as to charm thousands of his countrymen when he afterwards came to take up his abode in the Manse of Duddingston.

At the age of fourteen he was a tall, wiry, active lad, well endowed with what the old divines called ‘pregnant parts.’

His brother Thomas had at length, through the kind assistance of friends, been put on the way of passing for the Bar, and had gone, in the latter part of 1792, to Edinburgh as a law student. Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes—a son-in-law of Lord Kilkerran, his father’s parishioner and near neighbour—took a warm interest in his welfare, and must have discovered in the eldest son of the minister of Dailly the qualities which were one day to elucidate the legal and constitutional antiquities of Scotland. But unfortunately Thomas Thomson did not long benefit by his counsels and friendship, as his Lordship died in the winter of the same year. The warm friendship of Lady Hailes and the family was, however, extended through many long years after not only to Thomas but to his younger brother, the subject of our memoir.


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