Thomson, John (1778-1840) (DNB00)

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THOMSON, JOHN (1778–1840), landscape-painter, was the fourth son of Thomas Thomson, minister of Dailly, Ayrshire, and of his second wife Mary, daughter of Francis Hay. Born in his father's manse on 1 Sept. 1778, he was educated at the parish school, and sent to Glasgow University to study for the ministry, that being the family profession followed by his grandfather and great-grandfather as well as by his father. He attended Glasgow University in 1791–2, but his elder brother, Thomas Thomson (1768–1852) [q. v.], having removed to Edinburgh to study law, he followed him thither at the beginning of the following winter session (1793). Through Lady Hailes, a former parishioner of their father's, they were introduced to the best kind of Edinburgh society, and included Francis Jeffrey and Walter Scott (then young advocates) among their friends. During his course at Edinburgh John, who had always the desire to be a painter, devoted the vacations to sketching and studying nature among the charming woodland scenery of his Ayrshire home. During his last session (1798–9) he received some lessons from Alexander Nasmyth [q. v.], to whom most of the early Scots landscape-painters were indebted for such training as they had.

On his father's death, on 19 Feb. 1799, Thomson, through powerful influence, was presented by the crown as his successor in Dailly. He was ordained on 24 April 1800.

An important change in Thomson's life took place in 1805, when, through the interest of Scott, the Marquis of Abercorn presented Thomson to the parish of Duddingston in Midlothian. At Dailly he had lived much alone; his art was hardly known beyond the borders of his parish, and little approved of by his flock, while his pictures were given to friends as presents. But at Duddingston all this was altered. He made the acquaintance of many notable men in the then brilliant society of Edinburgh, and enjoyed the society of other artists, entertaining Turner as his guest in 1822. His talent as a landscape-painter soon became talked of, and we are told he had difficulty in supplying those anxious to possess his pictures. For ten years (1820–30) he is said to have made 1,800l. a year by his art, an income which no Scottish landscape-painter resident in Scotland has perhaps equalled.

At the exhibitions in Edinburgh, beginning in 1808, he showed over a hundred pictures; and when, on the institution of the Scottish Academy, he declined because of his clerical office to become an ordinary member, he was elected (1830) an honorary one. Thomson's love for art was not confined to painting; he was also passionately fond of music, and played the violin and the flute. He was a member of the Friday Club, to which social body Dugald Stewart, Alison, and Brougham belonged; and he contributed several articles on scientific subjects to the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ then recently started.

Thomson died on 28 Oct. 1840. He was twice married: first, on 7 July 1801, to Isabella, daughter of John Ramsay, minister of Kirkmichael in Ayrshire. She died on 18 April 1809, leaving two sons—Thomas and John—and two daughters; the younger, Isabella, was married to Robert Scott Lauder [q. v.] Thomson married, secondly, on 6 Dec. 1813, Frances Ingram Spence, widow of Martin Dalrymple of Fordel, Fifeshire. By her he had three sons—Francis, Charles, and Henry—and a daughter, Mary Helen.

Although lack of early and systematic training crippled his powers and prevented him from attaining full command of his mediums, Thomson was the greatest Scottish landscape-painter of his time, and the first to grasp and fitly express the ruggedness and strength of Scottish scenery. He appeared at a time when romance was in the ascendant, and his pictures bear evidence of the influence of its spirit. His earlier work was influenced by the Dutch painters, who were then in fashion; but gradually he came to think that Scottish scenery was ‘peculiarly suited to a treatment in which grandeur and wildness to a certain extent were the leading characteristics.’ As a rule the influence of Salvator Rosa and the Poussins, of whose work he possessed examples, is evident in his landscape, which, despite exaggeration of sentiment and a tendency to melodrama, possesses unity of idea, harmony of colour, distinction of style, and a certain grandeur of impression and design. For its time it has also freshness and originality of observation. Many of his pictures, owing to his habit of painting upon an insufficiently hardened ground of flour boiled with vinegar, which he described as ‘parritch,’ and a reckless use of asphaltum and megilp, are now in a very bad state of preservation. His slighter and more directly painted pictures are, however, in a much sounder state, and some of them betray a sensitiveness and charm of handling which one would hardly expect from his more elaborate work.

His pictures are to be found principally in the mansions of the Lothians and neighbouring counties and in Edinburgh. He is well represented in the National Gallery of Scotland by a series of works which shows the range of his art; there are two small examples in Glasgow, and a watercolour is in the historical collection at South Kensington. Of recent years his work has attracted considerable attention, and in 1895 twenty-four of his pictures were shown at the Grafton Gallery exhibition of Scottish old masters.

In the Scottish National Gallery there are two portraits of Thomson—one by Scott Lauder, and one by William Wallace; a second by Wallace is at present in the Scottish Portrait Gallery, and a head and shoulders by Raeburn belongs to Mr. Stirling of Keir. The last has been engraved in mezzotint by Alexander Hay.

[John Thomson of Duddingston, by W. Baird, 1895; Memoir of Thomas Thomson, by Cosmo Innes (Bannatyne Club), 1854; Scott's Fasti Eccl. Scot. I. i. 113, II. i. 107; Noctes Ambrosianæ; Armstrong's Scottish Painters; A. Fraser, R.S.A., in Art Journal, 1883, p. 78; Bryan's Dict. of Painters; Redgrave's Dict. of the English School; Graves's Dict. of Artists; Chambers's Dict. of Scotsmen, 1864; Cat. of Exhibitions National and Portrait Galleries of Scotland; Sir Walter Scott's Journal.]

J. L. C.