Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Runciman, Alexander

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RUNCIMAN, ALEXANDER (1736–1785), painter, born in 1736 at Edinburgh, was son of a builder, who encouraged his early inclination to painting. At the age of fourteen Runciman was placed in the studio of a landscape-painter, John Norris, and showed a strong predilection for that line of painting. Five years later he started on his own account as a landscape-painter, but his powers were still immature. A few years later, about 1760, he tried his hand at history-painting, but in this case also without immediate success. He determined therefore to go to Italy and study the works of the great masters at Rome, and in 1766 he succeeded, in company with his brother John (see below), who was also a painter, in making his way thither. For about five years he worked with unflagging industry, copying, studying, and analysing the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo, and his progress in his art was noted with much admiration. At Rome Runciman met a kindred spirit, a few years younger than himself, in Henry Fuseli [q. v.], and the two artists exercised a great influence on each other. Their works reveal a similar tendency to exaggeration; but Runciman had from his earliest age been a devoted student of the technique of art, which Fuseli never mastered. Runciman returned from Rome, ‘one of the best of us here,’ as Fuseli wrote in 1771, and settled in Edinburgh. Just about that time a vacancy occurred among the masters of the drawing school in the new Scottish academy, and the post was offered to Runciman, who accepted it with enthusiasm, although he had not all the necessary qualifications for a teacher.

An opportunity of distinction was afforded to him by the liberality of Sir James Clerk, who employed Runciman to paint two ceilings in his house at Penicuik. One of these, in a large room, designed for a picture gallery, contains a series of twelve paintings from Ossian's poems, then in the height of their popularity, with smaller paintings to complete the design; the other, a cupola over the staircase, contains four scenes from the life of the saintly Queen Margaret of Scotland. Although by no means free from faults, these ceiling-pictures by Runciman are important in the history of British art, and remain in fairly good preservation at the present day. They were extolled by his contemporaries, a glowing description of them being printed and issued at Edinburgh in 1773. Runciman was also employed to paint a ceiling over the altar in the church in Cowgate, Edinburgh, now St. Patrick's catholic chapel, the subject being ‘The Ascension.’ But this has less merit than the ‘Ossian’ paintings. Runciman obtained several commissions from Clerk and other art patrons in Edinburgh, painting such subjects as ‘The Prodigal Son,’ ‘Andromeda,’ ‘Nausicaa and Ulysses,’ ‘Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus,’ and ‘Sigismunda weeping over the Heart of Tancred.’ He also etched some free transcriptions of his own works, which are valued by collectors. But his health was seriously impaired by the labours of painting the ceilings at Penicuik. On 21 Oct. 1785 he dropped down dead in the street near his lodgings in West Nicholson Street, Edinburgh. He hardly realised the promise of his earlier career.

John Runciman (1744–1768), younger brother of the above, also practised painting. He accompanied his brother to Rome, but died at Naples in 1768, before returning to England. His talents as a painter were perhaps superior to those of his brother, the quality of his art being more refined and delicate. Of the few works which he lived to complete, one, ‘Belshazzar's Feast,’ is at Penicuik, and ‘The Flight into Egypt’ and ‘King Lear in the Storm’ are in the Scottish National Gallery.

A portrait of Alexander Runciman, together with John Brown, a fellow-artist, executed by the two artists conjointly in 1784, is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at Edinburgh, where there is also a portrait of John Runciman, painted by himself in 1767. Another portrait of John Runciman was acquired by W. Scott Elliot, esq., of Langholm, N.B.

A monument to the two brothers was erected by the Scottish Academy in the Canongate Church at Edinburgh.

[Cunningham's Lives of British Painters, &c.; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Knowles's Life of Fuseli; Catalogues of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Scottish National Gallery, and Edinburgh Loan Exhibition, 1884; Notes on the paintings at Penicuik House by the late J. M. Gray; information from James L. Caw, esq.]

L. C.