Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan, Thomas

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DUNCAN, THOMAS (1807–1845), painter, was born at Kinclaven, Perthshire, 24 May 1807. At an early age he drew likenesses of his young companions, and while still at school he painted the whole of the scenery for a dramatic representation of ‘Rob Roy,’ which he and his schoolfellows undertook to perform in a stable-loft. His father took alarm at what he considered unprofitable waste of time, and placed him in the office of a writer to the signet. As soon as he had served his time he obtained his father's leave to go to Edinburgh and enter the Trustees' Academy. There he made rapid progress under Sir William Allan [q. v.], whom he succeeded as head-master a few years later. He began to exhibit at the Scottish Academy in 1828, and first attracted notice by his pictures of ‘A Scotch Milk Girl’ and ‘The Death of Old Mortality,’ exhibited at the Royal Institution in 1829, which were followed in 1830 by that of ‘The Bra' Wooer.’ These and other early works won for him so much reputation that in 1830 he was elected an academician of the newly founded Scottish Academy, in which he held at first the professorship of colour, and subsequently that of drawing. He devoted himself chiefly to portraiture, but from time to time he produced genre and historical pictures. Among these were ‘Lucy Ashton at the Mermaid's Fountain’ and ‘Jeanie Deans on her Journey to London,’ exhibited in 1831; ‘Cuddie Headrigg visiting Jenny Dennison,’ in 1834; ‘Queen Mary signing her Abdication,’ in 1835; ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘A Covenanter,’ in 1836; ‘Anne Page inviting Master Slender to Dinner,’ in 1837; and ‘Isaac of York visiting his Treasure Chest’ and ‘The Lily of St. Leonards,’ in 1838.

In 1840 he sent to the exhibition of the Royal Academy in London his well-known picture of ‘Prince Charles Edward and the Highlanders entering Edinburgh after the Battle of Preston,’ in which he introduced the portraits of several eminent Scotchmen then living, and which appeared again in the Royal Scottish Academy in 1841. ‘The Waefu' Heart,’ an illustration from the ballad of ‘Auld Robin Gray,’ now in the Sheepshanks collection, South Kensington Museum, was his contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1841, and ‘Scene on Benormen, Sutherlandshire’ (or ‘Deerstalking’), to that of 1842; while to that of 1843 he sent ‘Prince Charles Edward asleep after the Battle of Culloden, protected by Flora Macdonald and Highland Outlaws.’ Both these pictures of Prince Charles Edward became the property of Mr. Alexander Hill, and were engraved, the first by Frederick Bacon, and the second by H. T. Ryall. These works led to his election in 1843 as an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1844 he exhibited pictures of ‘Cupid’ and ‘The Martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill, 1685,’ the latter of which is now in the Glasgow Corporation Galleries of Art. This was his last exhibited work, with the exception of a masterly portrait of himself, which appeared at the Royal Academy in 1846, after his death, and which was purchased by fifty Scottish artists and presented by them to the Royal Scottish Academy. Shortly before his last illness he received a commission from the Marquis of Breadalbane to paint a picture in commemoration of Queen Victoria's visit to Taymouth Castle, and a finished sketch for it, together with an unfinished sketch of ‘George Wishart on the day of his Martyrdom dispensing the Sacrament in the Prison of the Castle of St. Andrews,’ appeared in the exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1846. He died in Edinburgh, 25 April 1845, from a tumour on the brain, and was buried in the Edinburgh cemetery at Warriston. His principal pictures represent scenes in Scottish history, and show a considerable gift for colour. His portraits are faithfully and skilfully rendered, and evince delicate feeling for female beauty and keen appreciation of Scottish character. They include those of Sir John m'Neill, Professor Miller, Lord Robertson, Lord Colonsay, Dr. Gordon, and Dr. Chalmers. Several of Duncan's works are in the National Gallery of Scotland: ‘Anne Page inviting Master Slender to Dinner,’ ‘Jeanie Deans and the Robbers,’ ‘Bran, a celebrated Scottish Deerhound,’ ‘The Two Friends, Child and Dog,’ and portraits of himself, Lady Stuart of Allanbank, John m'Neill of Colonsay and Oronsay, and Duncan m'Neill, lord Colonsay. The original model of a bust of Duncan, by Patrick Park, R.S.A., is in the Royal Scottish Academy.

[Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen 1868, i. 507; Bryan's Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, ed. Graves, 1886, i. 436; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School, 1878; Armstrong's Scottish Painters, 1888, pp. 62–3; Scotsman 30 April 1845, Art Journal, 1847, p. 380, with portrait engraved by J. Smyth from a painting by himself; Catalogues of the Exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, 1828–46; Catalogues of the Exhibitions of the Royal Academy, 1840–6; Catalogue of the National Gallery of Scotland, 1883.]

R. E. G.