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Significant Scots
John Donaldson


DONALDSON, JOHN, an eminent painter, was born at Edinburgh, in the year 1737. His father was a poor but worthy glover in that city, remarkable for the peculiar cast of his mind, which led him to discuss metaphysics as he cut out gloves on his board. The son inherited the same peculiarity, but to an excess which proved injurious to him. His father very prudently did not allow his metaphysics to interfere with his trade; but young Donaldson, disregarding all the ordinary means of forwarding his own particular interests, devoted himself with disinterested philanthropy to the promotion of various fanciful projects for ameliorating the condition of his fellow creatures. The result was precisely what might have been anticipated; for although Donaldson had endowments sufficient to raise him to distinction and opulence, his talents were in effect thrown away, and he died in indigence. While yet a child, he was constantly occupied in drawing with chalk, on his father’s cutting-board, those objects around him which attracted his attention. This natural propensity was encouraged by his father, and such was his success, that the boy had hardly completed his twelfth year, when he was enabled to contribute to his own support by drawing miniatures in India-ink. At that time, too, his imitations with the pen, of the works by Albert Durer, Aldegrave, and other ancient engravers, were so exquisite as to excite the astonishment and admiration of men of the most accomplished taste, and to deceive the eye of the most experienced connoisseurs. After prosecuting his profession for several years in Edinburgh, he removed to London, and for some time painted likenesses in miniature, with great success. But at length, the mistaken notions of philanthropy just alluded to, gained such an ascendancy over his mind, as entirely to ruin his prospects. He conceived, that in morals, religion, policy, and taste, mankind were radically wrong; and, neglecting his profession, he employed himself in devising schemes for remedying this universal error. These schemes were the constant subject of his conversation; and, latterly, this infirmity gained so much upon him, that he reckoned the time bestowed on his professional avocations as lost to the world. He now held his former pursuits in utter contempt; and maintained that Sir Joshua Reynolds must be a very dull fellow, to devote his life to the study of lines and tints. He completely neglected his business, and has been known to deny himself to lord North, because he was not in the humour to paint. There was another unhappy peculiarity in his character, which contributed in no inconsiderable degree to mar his success. He was remarkable (until overwhelmed by adversity) for a sarcastic and epigrammatic turn; the indiscreet indulgence in which, lost him many friends. Even while persons of consideration were sitting to him, he would get up and leave them, that he might finish an epigram, or jot down a happy thought. It may well be supposed that, with every allowance for the whims and eccentricities of men of genius, absurdities such as these were not to be tolerated. Nor is it at all wonderful, that as an artist, he retrograded; and ultimately, from want of practice, lost much of that facility of execution, which had gained him celebrity in his early years. To such a man the experience of the world teaches no lesson. He saw with chagrin, the rise of greatly inferior artists; but failed to make that reformation in himself, which would have enabled him to surpass most of his contemporaries. At the same time, he was far from being idle, as the mass of manuscript scraps which he left behind him, abundantly testify. These manuscripts, however, were found in a state too unfinished and confused, to admit of their coming before the public. His only acknowledged publications were "An Essay on the Elements of Beauty," and a volume of poems; and Mr Edwards, in his supplement to Walpole’s anecdotes of painters, attributes to Donaldson, a pamphlet published anonymously, entitled "Critical Observations and Remarks upon the Public Buildings of London." Before he became disgusted with his profession, he had painted his well known historical picture of The Tent of Darius; which gained him the prize from the society of arts, and was justly admired for its great beauty. About the same time he executed two paintings in enamel, "The Death of Dido," and "The Story of Hero and Leander," both of which obtained prizes from the same society. These two paintings were so much admired, that he was urged by his friends to do others in the same style; but no persuasion could induce him to make the attempt. At that time many persons of rank and title honoured him with their patronage. The earl of Buchan, in particular, was very much his friend, and purchased the Tent of Darius, and several other of his paintings, together with one or both of the enamels. Donaldson’s likenesses, both in black-lead and in colours, were striking; of which the head of Hume the historian, prefixed to Strachan and Cadell’s edition of the History of England, was accounted a very favourable specimen.

Among the various pursuits of this eccentric individual, chemistry was one; in the prosecution of which, he discovered a method of preserving meat and vegetables uncorrupted, during the longest voyages. For this discovery he obtained a patent; but his poverty and indolence, and his ignorance of the world, prevented his turning it to any account. The last twenty years of his life were spent in great misery. His eye-sight had failed; but even before that misfortune, his business had left him; and he was frequently destitute of the ordinary necessaries of life. His last illness was occasioned by his having slept in a newly painted room, which brought on a total debility. His friends then removed him to lodgings near Islington, where he received every attention which his case required, until his death, which took place on the 11th of October, 1801. He was buried in Islington church-yard. Donaldson was a man of very rare endowments, and of great talents; addicted to no vice; and remarkable for the most abstemious moderation. The great and single error of his life, was his total neglect of his profession, at a time when his talents and opportunities held out the certainty of his attaining the very highest rank as an artist.


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