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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter IV


Marriage with Mrs. Dairymple of Fordel—The Manse Visitors—Provincial Antiquities of Scotland—Turner and Scott—Rossetti—William Bell Scott— Ruskin—Anecdotes—Visits to London—Voyage with Dr. Chalmers— Characteristics—The Duke of Buccleuch’s Order—Public Exhibitions in Edinburgh—Thomson’s Influence—The Scottish School—Horatio Macculloch—Robert Scott Lauder—Marriage of Isabella Thomson.

MR. THOMSON, after several years of widowhood, took to himself a second wife in the person of Frances Ingram Spence, the widow of Mr. Martin Dalrymple, of Fordel and Oleland. The marriage took place on 6th December 1813, and the circumstances under which it was brought about were of a somewhat romantic character. They are briefly as follows :— Mrs. Dalrymple, happening to call at the shop of a picture-

dealer during a visit to Edinburgh, was much struck by a painting of the Falls of Foyers. The execution was so novel and effective that, as she afterwards said, ‘she was quite inspired by its feeling and picturesque beauty.’ Herself an artist of no mean pretensions, she inquired the artist’s name, and was surprised to find it was Thomson of Duddingston. She had before seen specimens of his work, but never anything that so thoroughly realised her ideal in landscape. From that moment Mrs. Dalrymple longed to become acquainted with the man who could conceive and paint so fine a picture. She had soon an opportunity of gratifying her wish, being shortly afterwards introduced by one of her relatives to the minister. Before being aware of Mrs. Dalrymple’s sentiments towards him, it is said that Mr. Thomson, the moment he saw her, and entered into conversation, felt ‘that woman must be my wife; she is the only being that I have seen for years with whom I could deeply sympathise.’ Only one result could follow.

They were shortly afterwards married, and their affection for each other throughout life has been described as ‘more like the warm, buoyant, innocent love of childhood than the staid, sober, stereotyped friendship of their advancing years.’

Mrs. Thomson’s intense love for music and painting harmonised so well with all her husband’s tastes and habits, that they spent much of their time in each other’s society. Once she was asked by a friend how it came about that she, who was so rich, could ever have thought of marrying a minister. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it is very easy to explain that; we just drew together!’

Mr. Thomson was himself a performer on the flute and violin of considerable excellence. Those who had heard his performances on either of these instruments seemed not readily to forget them. On one occasion, when he and Scott were being entertained by Lord Chief Commissioner Adam, at Blair-Adam, with a select company of friends, Scott records that ‘we bad wine and wassail and John Thomson’s delightful flute to help us through the evening.’

Though not by any means a leader in conversation, but rather inclined as of old to act the part of the good listener, the minister succeeded, with the able assistance of his wife, in throwing an attractive charm round their fireside circle, which added many friends, and made the manse at Duddingston an envied resort. ‘Every one,’ we are told in a little memoir by his niece, Miss Isabella R. Thomson—’ Every one was delighted with the genuine simplicity of his manners, as well as with the depth and accuracy of his views on all subjects, for he was not only an arduous student during early youth, but his manhood steadily kept pace with the science and thought of the day.’ In evidence of this statement it is worthy of note that Thomson was a writer as well as a painter, and as a contributor to some of the early numbers of the Edinburgh Review of several articles on physical science, particularly on optics, which were much admired for their manly vigour and clearness of thought, he exemplified what is seldom found combined in one and the same person—a love for science and art.

As an amateur violinist Thomson had few equals. His violin performances, it is said, were remarkable for their vigour of feeling and expression. ‘We can never,’ says one, ‘forget the impression made upon us by a favourite air played by him on the violin, called the Dead March of the Mackenzies, accompanied by his son Frank on the violin-cello.’ He played strathspeys, laments, Irish jigs, and Highland marches splendidly; indeed, had he not been a distinguished painter, he would have been equally well known to the world as a most skilful and soul-inspiring musician.

Music found a congenial home in the manse, and drew within its walls many a delightful company, at a time when public concerts were neither so plentiful nor so cheap as they now are. Mrs. Thomson was indeed quite an enthusiast, and did much to stimulate a taste for music in the parish. She had a large class for the cultivation of sacred music, which met in the manse not unfrequently twice a week, and was conducted by herself, and at which John Wilson, the celebrated singer of Scottish songs, used to assist. He was a young man at the time, and frequently officiated for the precentor in the church, but so impressed was Mr. Thomson with his talents, that he predicted he would rise to excellence—a prediction afterwards fully verified.

Shortly after the marriage the manse was considerably enlarged, by an addition to the east side, including a large drawing-room and bedrooms above, in order to meet its growing social requirements.

With music and painting in company, the guests and visitors at the manse were numerous and brilliant, The house, indeed, was frequented to an extent that would hardly be credited.

Thomson’s reputation as an artist was now thoroughly established, and while many works from his easel were still freely gifted to friends, orders for pictures poured in upon him from all quarters, and we have been told on good authority that between 1820 and 1830 he was in receipt of fully £1800 a year from this source—and that was considered a very wonderful thing in those days.

It was in the August of 1817 that Sir David Wilkie, then at the height of his popularity, paid a visit to Scotland. Being desirous of making a tour of the country, in order to become better acquainted with its scenery, only then beginning to be appreciated, he came down to Edinburgh. He had evidently no previous personal acquaintance with Mr. Thomson, but acting on the advice of several Edinburgh friends, and among others Mr. John Clerk of Eldin, he paid a visit to Duddingston manse with the view of asking the minister to accompany him to the Highlands. In a letter to his sister, narrating the circumstance, Sir David mentions that, ‘on going to Duddingston, however, Mr. Thomson was away from home, and his wife (who is a very fine woman) told me she doubted whether he could go, as his Sacrament is just coming on; otherwise I believe that not only would he have gone, but that Mrs. Thomson, who is also a great enthusiast, would have accompanied us one or two of the stages. I accordingly left Edinburgh on Tuesday last without a companion, but with plenty of letters of introduction.’

A tour in the West Highlands in those days was not the easy-going business we now find it; some parts of the country, indeed, were practically inaccessible, and in the company of such a companion as Thomson, who knew the ground well, Sir David’s ‘aunt, which was made at the instigation of Sir Walter Scott, would have had its pleasure immensely enhanced. The prominent features of our Scottish scenery were then little known; but what Sir Walter Scott did for Scotland in word-painting Thomson did with his brush. His passion for his art grew with years, and ‘he searched the country (says Alexander Smith) for subjects for his easel with greater ardour, one almost fears, than he showed in searching the Scriptures for texts for his sermons!’

It was in 1818 that Thomson and Turner came first into contact. In that year a proposal was made to publish a large work to be called The Provincial Antiquities of Scotland, illustrating the chief picturesque features of the country—its castles, its churches, abbeys, woods, and hills. Leading artists of the day were to be employed to furnish the plates, and Sir Walter Scott undertook to write the descriptive letterpress. To John Thomson and J. M. W. Turner the publishers naturally looked as the two recognised exponents of landscape art. Both were engaged, and the latter came down to Scotland and made a tour of the country, sketch-book in hand, in 1822. He made a number of drawings of places of interest, chiefly in the Lothians, as Borthwick and Crichton Castles, Tantallon, Dunbar, Craigmiliar, Linlithgow Palace, the Bass Rock, etc., and visited these in company with Scott and Thomson. Turner never seemed, however, to get into Scott’s favour. The great novelist had a keen enjoyment of the things in Nature, which were the raw material, so to speak, of Turner’s art. He delighted in landscape, and no artist ever had a stronger liking for ancient or romantic buildings, especially when their interest was enhanced by historical or legendary associations. Yet, notwithstanding what was up to this point a community of tastes, we are told by Turner’s biographer, ‘Sir Walter could not really enter into the mind of Turner, because, whilst delighting in Nature, he had no understanding of graphic art.’ We are inclined to believe that it was more a personal antipathy to Turner’s habits and manner that made Scott indicate a strong preference for Thomson, even as a painter. He only acquiesced in Turner supplying so many of the illustrations for the work, as he himself said, ‘because he was all the fashion.’ As it ultimately happened, when the book made its appearance in 1826, an equal number of the illustrations were executed by Turner and Thomson, and it is safe to say that for power of delineation, accuracy of drawing and finish, Thomson’s are not surpassed by any within its pages.

Scott declined any pecuniary recompense for this publication, but afterwards, when its success was secured, he accepted from the proprietors some of the beautiful drawings by Turner, Thomson, and others.

During Turner’s sojourn in Scotland, he was a frequent guest at the manse of Duddingston, and William Bell Scott, then only ‘a beginner of twenty or so,’ tells us in his Autobiographical Notes, in his own simple way, some reminiscences not altogether complimentary to Turner, and of his meeting him at dinner there. ‘Thomson,’ he says, ‘had unbounded admiration of Turner’s art; at the same time he laughed good-humouredly at the man, and at the anecdotes then current, to which he added others from his own intercourse.’ Cockneyism was at the time the prevailing subject of Edinburgh ridicule, not in literature merely, but in social life, and as an indication of the dwarfed cultivation and style of talk of the great adept, he tells how Thomson was one day examining with much admiration a drawing by Turner. It was a view of a distant river, with a greyhound at full speed after a hare in the foreground. ‘Ah,’ said Turner, noticing Thomson’s close scrutiny of the picture, ‘I see you want to know why I have introduced that ‘are. It ‘s a bit of sentiment, sir! For that is the spot where ‘Arold ‘Arefoot fell, and you see I have made an ‘ound a-chasing an ‘are!’ Was ever a joke more contemptible? It is quite as excruciating as any surgical operation Sydney Smith could have conceived or performed on the obtuse skull of the dullest Scotsman!

Some years afterward this story happened to be repeated in a company of friends among whom were D. G. Rossetti, John Ruskin, and William Bell Scott. Scott and Ruskin did not agree on many points, particularly in their estimate of Turner, and Scott told the story with all the gusto he could command as a good humoured reprisal for what he called ‘Ruskin’s supercilious pretence’ and inflated notions of Turner’s abilities, following it up with the remark that ‘the evidence of the personality and talk of a man was in most cases conclusive as to the character of his works.’ Rossetti laughed, and asked if Turner really talked. in that way, and how he managed to get over that sort of thing; but Ruskin’s countenance fell, and the thundercloud on his brow indexed the passion within, or as Scott himself archly said—’ the poisonous expression on his face was a study!’

Ruskin has undoubtedly written much true criticism of his hero; very beautiful, and very instructive. Let us not undervalue so

priceless a gift to the literature of Art. His hero-worship was no affectation, but a loving, spontaneous admiration, which has impelled him in talk as in his writings to frequent extravagance, or as W. Bell Scott put it, ‘to find out qualities no one else could see, and to contradict or ignore those evident to every one else.’

At the particular meeting referred to in Duddingston manse there was a large party at dinner. Turner, who was residing in the city, was brought out in the carriage of a friend, who, however, left soon after dinner, and so the great artist was thrown on the indulgence of another friend to frank him home. Poor Turner, he never could do justice to himself!

Though in many respects Thomson and Turner had tastes in common, their moral natures were most dissimilar. Both were idealists in Art; both were absorbed in the study of the beautiful; both felt the power of colour and form impelling them to work and think. But while the one was selfish, ill-natured, and jealous to the last degree, the other was open, candid, generous, and unsuspicious.

On the subject of Art Turner’s experience was doubtless the more extensive of the two. He had greater opportunities for foreign travel; he had seen more of the world, and intercourse with foreign artists had widened the scope of his art knowledge. As such he was an undoubted authority in his own province, and Thomson yielded him that deference which was unquestionably his due.

On one occasion Turner spent several days with the minister at the manse, and some amusing reminiscences of the visit remain. It was a universal belief in those days that the old masters had their secrets, so called; and in one of the biographies of Turner, we find him asking Thomson if he had yet found Titian’s secret. It appeared as if Turner himself had what he considered valuable secrets, which he jealously guarded, allowing no one to see him paint or even to sketch if he could prevent it. He was always living in an atmosphere of mystery. One day Thomson and ‘Grecian’ Williams set out with him on an excursion to Craigmillar Castle, in the immediate vicinity. They went to make sketches of the ruin; but the London artist, when in the neighbourhood of his subject, avoided their company, edging away by himself and leaving the two to work together. He made several sketches of the Castle from different points of view, in pencil, but showed what he had done to no one. On their return to the manse in the evening, Turner happening to lay down his sketch-book on the lobby table, the minister’s wife, curious to see the great artist’s work, ran off with the book. Turner, however, gave chase, and took it from her before she had time to look at it, nor did any one see anything he did whilst he remained at the manse.

On the other hand, Thomson, in the matter of Art, was free from the narrow jealousy of spirit frequently to be found among professional artists. The fact that in his modesty he always looked upon himself as an amateur no doubt contributed largely to this feeling. Of Turner he used to speak in the most enthusiastic terms—long before Ruskin, his great expositor, was born—as the greatest landscape painter that the world had yet produced. We much fear the same generosity was not evinced on the other side. Whether Turner looked upon Thomson as merely an amateur we cannot say. ‘For amateurs as a class, it is said, he cherished feelings of unconquerable aversion’; but we are inclined to suspect that for Thomson, at least, he secretly cherished that respect which jealous natures are not frank enough to admit.

Tantellon Castle

During his visit the minister endeavoured in vain to find out what his friend thought of his pictures. One day when he had taken him into the studio to show him several of these, newly framed and ready to be sent off for exhibition, Turner, after looking at them somewhat critically for some time, at last called out rather ungraciously, ‘Ah, Thomson! you beat me hollow—in frames!’ Even to a direct question as to what he thought of that picture, pointing to a particularly fine one on the easel, he made no response. It was only when leaving the room, as his eye fell on a small sketch hanging on the wall, that he stopped and exclaimed, ‘The man who did that could paint!’

The only other complimentary remark Turner seems to have made was in reference to the Loch, which he did in this wise, as he drove off from the manse door: ‘By God, though, I envy you that piece of water!Well he might: it was Thomson’s living model. Very little indeed did Thomson or any one else get out of this strange mortal.

Whatever Turner was in Art, he was essentially coarse and vulgar in speech. It was his way to make a joke—often a rough one—out of a left-handed compliment, as on one occasion at Duddingston, when Sir Francis Grant and Mr. Horsman, M.P., were present. Grant, who then resided in Regent’s Park, near to the Zoological Gardens, asked the great painter courteously to come and dine with him on his return to London. ‘I'll be very glad,’ said Turner jocosely, ‘I often go to see the wild beasts fed!’

A propos of this is an amusing reminiscence by W. L. Leitch, a clever artist of the old school, well acquainted with both men. Turner, said Leitch, was very fond of painting the Nor’ Loch at the Jase of the Castle Rock of Edinburgh, and when there used to like to run and get his dinner with Mr. Thomson at Duddingston, and spoke of it as ‘making the little distance’ between the manse and the loch. Re did this very frequently, and always with great pleasure. One day Mr. Thomson said to him, ‘Turner, I mean to have a dinner with you in Queen Anne Street when I come up to London. I shall be there next month.’ Turner at once responded, ‘But it is very uncertain whether I shall be there.’ Thomson said, ‘Oh, but you must be there; I'll wait till you are.’ With a shrug of his shoulder Turner suggested, ‘You had much better get your dinner at your own hotel.’ Mr. Thomson, however, determined to have it out with him, but with what Mr. Leitch calls ‘the questionable taste not uncommon at that period,’ said, ‘But I want to make the little distance between my hotel and your house.’ ‘You will get your dinner more comfortably at any place than at my house,’ pleaded Turner; ‘dine at your own hotel.’ But the other answered stolidly, ‘I want to dine with you, Turner.’ ‘Well, come to my house, then, if you like,’ said he at last, ‘but dine before you come!’ When Thomson arrived in London he went to Queen Anne Street and made Turner fix a day for this too-much-talked-of dinner. Before the day arrived, however, Thomson met Rogers, who, told him that Sir Walter Scott was in town, and that he and Sir Walter and some friends were going to dine at Richmond, and invited him to join the party. ‘But I can’t!’ replied Thomson, ‘I am going to dine with Turner.’ ‘With Turner!’ cried Rogers, ‘you will get a very bad dinner there!’ Then they pressed him to go to Richmond with them, and invited Turner to go too. When Thomson conveyed the message, Turner said, ‘But I have bought the leg of mutton!’ ‘Never mind the leg of mutton,’ replied Thomson; ‘take it with you and stick it into the hand of the first poor person you meet.’

‘Not such a born fool!’ exclaimed Turner.

Thomson was quite a different character. He had little self-esteem, or only sufficient to be called self-respect; but he was the last man to attempt to hurt the feelings of others. He would frankly talk of the excellences and faults of his own works with the honest freedom that he evinced in criticising the works of his contemporaries or of the old masters. When others could see no faults in his pictures he would honestly point them out, and regret their existence. The love of truth coloured every phase of his character.

That he was quite a match for Turner in repartee is well illustrated by the story of their meeting in the London Gallery, probably in the year 1827. Thomson was standing in the Gallery surrounded by a number of friends, when Turner espied him, and with his usual roughness of manner and vulgar familiarity advanced to shake hands, exclaiming at the same time, in a kind of Anglicised Scotch, ‘Weel, Thomson, hoo ‘s the guidwife and weans?’ Thomson, not at all put out, replied in the native Doric, ‘Brawly, man, and hoo are ye yersel, frien’?’ Amid the shout of laughter which followed this sally at his solitary condition, poor Turner was quite upset, and slunk off to another part of the room.

The difference in character of the two men was very marked in their human sympathies. Turner seems to have had little or no regard for the welfare or feelings of others, while of the other it was a remarkably true saying of his wife, that ‘it was not safe to trust John with money in his pocket’; he would give it away so readily. One day, when out walking together, they were met by a poor man, who humbly asked them for a copper. Turner frowned, and roughly ordered the man about his business, but Thomson’s feelings were roused by this unnecessary harshness, and making the excuse that he had a word to say to the beggar, he turned back, and, with a few kindly words, slipped a half-crown into his hand.

The roughness of manner shown by Turner on his first visit to Scotland seems to have made a bad impression on many besides Thomson. We find Sir Walter Scott referring to it many years after—in 1831— when Cadell’s edition of the Waverley Novels was being projected with illustrations by Turner. To tell the truth, Scott would have infinitely preferred had his publishers selected Thomson’s pencil rather than Turner’s for this particular edition; but, yielding to their urgent representations, he at length acquiesced in the selection of Turner, because, as they said, he was better known in London than Thomson. He accordingly mentions in his Journal after the arrangement was concluded: ‘I have written to the Man of Art inviting him to come to Abbotsford to take the necessary drawings, and offering to transport him to the places where he is to exercise his pencil, though,’ says he in addition, ‘if I remember, he is not very agreeable.’

That there was some similarity in their art-work has been very generally admitted by critics, and indeed some have gone so far as to discover a great deal of resemblance in their style, and have described Thomson as the ‘Scottish Turner.’ We are not inclined to homologate this entirely, for in many respects Thomson’s individuality was such as to preclude him ever being an imitator of any one, however excellent; but we have a rather remarkable illustration of the estimation in which his work may be placed when standing upon its own merits. Sir James D. Linton, President of the Royal Institution, London, in a speech delivered in Aberdeen (2nd July 1890), referring to what Scotland had achieved in the past in the world of Art, put Thomson of Duddingston in the front rank of British artists; and speaking of the estimation in which his work is still held, he mentioned that one of his pictures, which was sold in Edinburgh a few years ago, reached London, but the picture was so remarkably fine, that most of the experts there said, ‘It is not a Thomson; it is a Turner’; and at Messrs. Christie and Manson’s rooms it was actually sold as the work of the English artist! ‘Can there be,’ said Sir James, ‘a higher compliment to a painter than that his work should be taken for the work of a man I call the Shakespeare of Art?’

Though Thomson was not insensible to the advantages which wealth and rank could purchase, in the pursuit of Art we find him invariably rising above the sordid desire for recompense for his work. This motive, which not unfrequently is found strongly developed in painters of high attainment, had little or no weight with him. Being practically independent of any income he might derive from his brush, he was happily rid of the temptation to eke out his art by what are vulgarly called ‘pot-boilers.’ He sought after Nature for the sake of Art, and the pleasure and satisfaction its pursuit afforded him. It is doubtless true that money sweetens labour, and the pleasure of painting was not lessened but rather enhanced, by the feeling that his friends desired not merely to be possessed of his work, but to pay a good price for what they got. Still the motive for work and the reward for work done are different considerations in the mind of the true artist. Thomson was something more than a mere painter of pictures to adorn the parlours of those who could afford to buy them. He was a student of Nature first, the artist next, and last and least of all the merchant; indeed, the latter function he performed, we fear, very indifferently. We have a good illustration of this feature of his character in the following letter addressed to North Dairymple, Esq., afterwards ninth Earl of Stair, and father of the present Earl, who was then residing at Campie, near Musselburgh.

DUDDINGSTON, Sunday, 26 September 1830.


If I read your note aright it is Friday 6th you mean for us to have the pleasure of waiting on you. I believe the 6th falls on Wednesday, and, of course, the following Friday is the 8th. We are quite at your disposal either of these days, but till we hear again shall be puzzled which of them you wish us to come—Deo Volente.

The picture sent to you lately is not, strictly speaking, a view. I seldom do paint views; but it was composed from materials immediately in the neighbourhood of Loch Leven, with a distant peep of an old tower called Burleigh. Since you do insist on my naming the filthy thing called a price, I have generally had something about ten guineas for such productions. Have you taken it out of the frame? The sacrifice of what is hid up is of no great consequence; but, should you desire an enlargement by several inches, you have it in your power. I remain, my dear Mr. Dairymple,

yours with great regard,


No considerations of ‘price’ were allowed to influence his enthusiasm—or rather, shall we say, his creative inspiration ?—as an artist. ‘The true landscapist,’ it has been well said, ‘is not only a seer; he is a maker, a builder, a poet; but, he makes and builds up only in conformity with the laws of the material universe, into which he sees a few handbreadths deeper than his fellow-mortals, and hence his works become almost as suggestive and spirit-stirring as Nature herself.’ If the reproduction of Nature, even if it be only in so ephemeral a material as a piece of rough canvas or paper, is of man’s work the nearest in resemblance to the work of creation, Thomson undoubtedly experienced, in the delight such creations gave him, his highest recompence, and we are almost tempted, but with reverence, to add of his work, ‘and behold it was very good.’ The ‘price’ with him was a ‘filthy thing,’ or at least of only secondary importance, and not to be put in comparison with the higher motive, which teaches that

‘Art gifts with soul all matter that it touches.’

Sir Walter Scott, who sometimes looked at Art from a more matter-of-fact point of view, in which the pecuniary recompence was, in his estimation, a not unimportant element, soundly rated Thomson on one occasion upon this indifference of his to money matters. It occurs in an entry in his Journal, under date 22nd May 1831, as follows: ‘I have a letter from my friend John Thomson of Duddingston. I had transmitted to him an order from the Duke of Buccleuch for his best picture at his best price, leaving the choice of the subject and everything else to himself. He (Thomson) expresses the wish to do at an ordinary price a picture of a common size. The declining to put himself forward will, I fear, be thought like shrinking from his own reputation, which nobody has less need to do. The Duke may wish a large picture for a large price for furnishing a large apartment, and the artist should not shrink from

it. I have written him my opinion. The feeling is no doubt an amiable though a false one. He is modest in proportion to his talents. But what brother of the finer arts ever approached excellence so as to please himself?’

Thomson in this case complied with Scott’s wishes, and painted for the Duke the picture of Ravensheugh Castle, which now adorns the dining-room at Bowhill, his Grace’s Selkirkshire seat. It is a large canvas, five feet three inches by three feet and a half, very similar in composition as well as in tone and feeling to the same subject in the Scottish National Gallery.

Scott’s opinion of his friend as an artist was very pronounced, and there can be little doubt that his influence with the Duke brought him more than this one commission. Five or six years later he painted the large picture—seven feet by three feet and a half— of ‘Edinburgh from Inverleith House,’ for his Grace, which is also in the same spacious apartment, for, said Scott, ‘he is not only the best landscape painter of his age and country, but one of the warmest-hearted men living, with a keen and unaffected feeling of poetry’ in his composition.

When these words were penned Thomson had achieved some of his greatest successes as a painter, and his fame stood deservedly high in the Art world. An evidence of his remarkable industry is to be found in the large number of his public exhibits alone, and these were certainly a poor index of what must have passed from his hands altogether. During the seven years previous to 1831 he exhibited at the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Edinburgh no less than fifty pictures, many of them large and important works.

In 1826 the Annual Exhibition, which before that date had been held in the house of Sir Henry Raeburn in York Place, was held for the first time in the rooms of the Royal Institution on the Mound, and proved to be a decided advance upon previous efforts. Here is how his friend Sir Walter speaks of it in his Journal

‘Feby. 9th.—I visited the Exhibition on my way home from Court. The new rooms are most splendid, and there are several good pictures. The Institution has subsisted but five years, and it is astonishing how much superior the worst of the present collection are to the tea-board-looking things which first appeared. John Thomson of Duddingston has far the finest picture in the Exhibition of a large size; subject, Dunluce—a ruinous castle of the Antrim family near the Giant’s Causeway, with one of those terrible seas and skies which only Thomson can paint.’

Again, in 1828, Scott, referring in his Journal to the Academy, says :—

‘9 Feby.—As I came home from the Court I stepped into the Exhibition. It makes a very good show. I particularly distinguished John Thomson’s picture of Turnberry Castle, which is of first-rate excellence.’

Thomson’s influence, both personal and artistic, was undoubtedly of great service at this time in the formation of the Scottish School of Art. By the young men of the Academy his counsel and advice were eagerly sought after, and were as freely given. No one sought help from him in vain, for his house and hand were ever open to all who really wanted his assistance. To the younger men especially he was ever generous and helpful. His position and influence gave him many opportunities of encouraging struggling merit, and that in a truly friendly and unostentatious way.

Among those who may be named as coming under Thomson’s personal influence, and who received great kindness at his hands, may be mentioned Daniel Macnee, afterwards ‘Sir Daniel,’ and President of the Academy, William Bell Scott, Horatio Macculloch, the brothers James Eckford Lauder and Robert Scott Lauder, David Scott, and many others, who in after years acknowledged their obligations.

William Bell Scott tells us in his autobiography that about the year 1826 he was striving to overcome the difficulties of etching and engraving, and being desirous of showing Thomson that he had to some extent at least mastered these arts, and was able to undertake the reproduction in black and white of a large landscape, he borrowed from him a picture called the ‘Martyrs’ Tombs,’ being graves of Covenanters in the wild mountain region of Galloway. This picture by Thomson (whom he designates ‘the clerical amateur who had at once gone ahead of all the Scottish professors’) had made a profound sensation. It was a fine picture, and Scott felt proud to be allowed to engrave it. ‘When my engraving of it was finished,’ says Bell Scott, ‘I took the proof to Professor Wilson, and asked if I might place a dedication to him under it.’ The request was readily granted; but it must be admitted, for the credit of the original, that Scott’s reproduction of it in black and white cannot be said to be a success.

Horatio Macculloch, whose early training and practice was in the West, and whose vigour of style, truthfulness of colouring, and carefulness in detail mark him out as a leader in Scottish landscape, is frequently compared with Thomson. But while Macculloch admired the works of Thomson, and felt spurred on to emulation by his example, his ideas of Art were totally different. He had, in fact, formed his style, and his pictures had been much admired, before he met Thomson. Thomson showed him marked attention on his coming to Edinburgh, was much charmed with his work, and frequently invited him to meet at his hospitable board those men of talent or position by whom he was generally surrounded; but it is said that no assistance in his art progress was given or expected.

Perhaps over none of the young men of the first quarter of the century was Thomson’s influence more appreciably felt than over the character of Robert Scott Lauder, R.S.A., and his brother Eckford.

Thomson doubtless sympathised much with young Scott Lauder in his early aspirations for Art, with parental and other difficulties to be surmounted. Had he not himself when a youth had parental influence biassing his mind against his early predilections, and forcing him into the ministry? But while he had accepted the latter as his profession, he had still retained his love for Art, and had kept up the practice of it with wonderful perseverance. It was clear to every one that Art to him was more than the ministry. Yet the two were, in a measure, not incompatible, for Art and Literature are twin sisters. But poor Lauder’s lot was different. After receiving a good commercial education at the High School of Edinburgh, he was placed in the counting-house of his father’s tannery at Silvermills, without the power of choice, his views on the matter of a profession being simply ignored, and the parental will made to dominate any predilection for ‘such nonsense as painting.’ The result was as might have been expected. Young Lauder neglected the figures of arithmetic in the tannery for those of Michael Angelo and the great masters. This annoyed and disgusted his disappointed parent, who endeavoured first by gentle remonstrance, and afterwards by overbearing opposition, to thwart and subdue his son’s art inclinations. Father and son were equally stubborn, and if the former at length gave way, it was in silent contempt or sorrowful protest. It is no doubt hard for a parent to have his prudential and honourable designs set at naught and rendered futile by the wilfulness and caprice of inexperienced youth, but it is also hard to have one’s career mechanically fixed irrespective of suitability or inclination. In the end, then, and in spite of the axiom that ‘there is nothing like leather,’ young Lauder turned his back upon tan-pits and leather, ledgers and cash, and in so doing most probably lost his chance of eventually dying a wealthy man with a well-lined purse; but his forsaking of the tan-pits of Silver-mills was a fortunate thing for Scottish Art.

He early made the acquaintance of the minister of Duddingston, who ever evinced for him the warmest friendship, and exercised over his art not a little influence, particularly in the formation of his style in regard to chiaroscuro and form. But Lauder not only found the minister sympathetic, and his instruction profitable; he had other attractions to draw him to the manse, in the person of the minister’s daughter, for whom he had formed an ardent attachment, and she for him; and where love reigns, Art may not presume to rule.

The visits, we may thus be sure, would be both frequent and long. On one occasion Lauder brought with him a difficult canvas over which he had been working for some time, but with not altogether satisfactory results, in order to get some suggestions from Mr. Thomson about it. That he had another object in view in his visit was evident from the scrupulous care with which he was attired; for, as a relative once told us, ‘he was a great dandy in his youth.’ Thomson examined the canvas carefully, and then handed it back with a laughing twinkle in his eye, saying, ‘I am afraid, Robert, Nature does not reveal her secrets to dandies in such fine clothes!’

Robert Scott Lauder and Miss Isabella Thomson were married at the manse on 10th September 1833, and in her company he proceeded to Italy, where he studied for four or five years, after which he settled down in London, gaining well-merited distinction as the painter of the ‘Trial of Effie Deans’ and ‘Christ Teaching Humility,’—works which will ever rank him among our most eminent Scottish artists.

Thomson’s kindness to him, it is said, he never forgot to his latest day, but gratefully acknowledged among the happiest and most fondly cherished experiences of a brilliant and honourable career.

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