Duncan – Thomas Duncan RSA ARA (1807-45)

Hailed as the “Brightest Ornament” of the Scottish Academy, Perthshire’s Thomas Duncan was a talented artist who died tragically young. Thomas was born in Kinclaven (4 May 1807) and died in Edinburgh (25 April 1845)

Early years

  • Thomas Duncan, third child to Samson Duncan (1767-1837) and Janet Alexander (died 1841) was born at the Mill House of Kinclaven on 4 May 1807, and baptized on 17 May
  • Thomas’ parents were married in November 1802 at Kinclaven and already had 2 sons, John (born 16 August 1803, died 26 September 1879) and Peter (born Kinclaven 30 January 1806, died 1 October 1846)
  • Thomas’ father Samson, as well as being the local miller, was also a gifted musician. He played the fiddle, played with Niel Gow’s band and composed his own music
  • Thomas moved to Perth with his parents and brothers in 1810
  • Thomas attended Perth Academy where he studied art under David Junor (1773-1835), the Drawing Master
  • Thomas probably first met David Octavius Hill (1802-70) and John McLaren Barclay (1811-86) at this time. David and John would also become artists and were lifelong friends of Thomas
  • Thomas had another brother, James (born 9 November 1815, died 4 October 1881) and a sister Jane (born 13 December 1821, died 5 April 1877)
  • Thomas was apprenticed to the Perth lawyers John and James Miller between 1823-26. He did not enjoy his time there and desperately wanted to become an artist

Student in Edinburgh

Thomas successfully applied to the Board of Manufacturers in Edinburgh for admission to the Trustees Academy to study painting. He was enrolled on 22 March 1827

  • Thomas’ application was supported by David Junor and David Octavius Hill
  • Thomas had D. O. Hill amongst his classmates
  • Thomas studied under the history painter (Sir) William Allan

Exhibits his paintings

  • Thomas first exhibited his work in 1828
  • Thomas exhibited one work at each of the Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland,  The Scottish Academy, and the Carlisle Academy Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures by British Artists
  • Thomas exhibited in Glasgow for the first time in 1830, showing 4 works at the West of Scotland Exhibition of Fine Art
  • Thomas was also securing portrait commissions including many from Perth, around this time

Living in Edinburgh

  • Thomas lived at temporary addresses in Edinburgh. 74 Rose Street (1828) where he met his future wife Mary Steele (1812-1905), Gemson`s Lodgings 19 Pitt Street (possibly sharing with fellow artist Daniel MacNee) and 12 Union Street (both 1829), 8 Scotland Street (the home of William Allan) and 31 London Street (both 1830)
  • Thomas married Mary Steele in Edinburgh 16 January 1832 having moved to 1 Darnaway Street the previous year
  • Thomas and Mary moved to 3 Gloucester Place in 1838

Thomas as a father

  • Thomas and Mary had 6 children, all born in Edinburgh except their fifth child who was born at North Queensferry
  • Thomas and Mary’s children were; Thomas Alexander (born 17 June 1833, died 26 January 1903), Mary Helen (b 9 February 1835, died 21 June 1856), William (born 15 May 1837, died 18 February 1854), Jane (born 12 December 1839, died 27 February 1935), John James (born 8 October 1842, lost at sea 1858) and Charles (born 20 September 1844, died 5 April 1929)

Thomas as a teacher

  • Thomas returned to the Trustees Academy in 1838 as Head of the newly created School of Colouring
  • Thomas had done some teaching before this. In 1831 he stood in for Sir William Allan and in 1835 he was listed as a visitor (i.e. teacher) in the Life Class at the Scottish Academy
  • Thomas received a salary of £97 in his first year for which he taught 2 hours each morning for 4 days per week. He had the period 12 August to 12 November as his annual leave!
  • Thomas was appointed Headmaster of the Trustees Academy in 1844, on an annual salary of £200, in succession to his former Master, William Allan

National recognition

  • Thomas first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1836 when he showed a work inspired by Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • Thomas exhibited again in 1840 when he showed the first of his major history paintings inspired by Bonnie Prince Charlie
  • Thomas showed the companion picture at the 1843 Royal Academy exhibition
  • Thomas was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) in 1843

Thomas’ death

  • Thomas died at 3 Gloucester Place on 25 April 1845
  • Thomas was days short of his 38th birthday
  • Thomas was surrounded by his wife, his children and his old friend D. O. Hill
  • Thomas died from a huge brain tumour which he had been unwittingly suffering from since at least 1844
  • Thomas was afforded the first “state funeral” by the Royal Scottish Academy for one of its members
  • Thomas was buried in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh on 30 April 1845 attended by many of the leading legal, religious, academic and artistic figures of the day
  • Thomas’ pictures were sold at auction in Edinburgh between 19-21 June 1845
  • Thomas’ last picture on which he was working at the time of his death was a sketch for a large history painting about the Protestant martyr George Wishart
  • Thomas’ last picture was purchased by Alexander Hill whose younger brother, D. O. Hill and his partner R Adamson photographed it. It is the first Scottish painting ever to be photographed and was secured for the Perth collection in 1987

Find out more about Thomas Duncan

Copies of the 1995 Perth Museum and Art Gallery exhibition catalogue The Brightest Ornament; Thomas Duncan RSA ARA, Portrait and History Painter 1807-45 (ISBN 0-907495-13-3) are available from Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

Work by Thomas Duncan in Perth Museum and Art Gallery

(please note, it is not possible to display all our collections at any one time. To avoid disappointment, if you wish to view any of Thomas’ work please contact the Art Section to make an appointment)

Oil paintings

  • Self-Portrait
  • Portrait of Samson Duncan, the artist’s father(1767-1837) music teacher in Perth
  • Portrait of Robert Hepburn (1764-1831) timber merchant in Perth
  • Portrait of David Morison (c.1761-1843) Provost of Perth
  • Portrait of the Rt. Hon Fox Maule Ramsay, 11th Earl Dalhousie, 2nd Baron Panmure (1801-74) MP for Perthshire
  • Portrait of Alexander Macduff (1792-1842) of Bonhard, Captain in the Royal Perth Militia
  • Portrait of Mrs Margaret Catherine Macduff (nee Ross) wife of Alexander Macduff of Bonhard
  • Portrait of the Reverend Alexander Pringle DD (1760/2-1839) Minister in Perth
  • Portrait of George Seton, aged 12 (1822-post 1896) Advocate
  • Portrait of Mary Monteith Ferguson
  • Portrait of Adam Pringle (1760-1849) Provost of Perth
  • Dog Braan, James Condie’s Favourite Dog
  • Catharine Glover and Father Clement the Carthusian Monk
  • final oil sketch for George Wishart Administering the Sacrament in the Prison of St Andrews Castle on the Morning of his Execution, 1 March 1546
  • oil sketch for Prince Charles Edward and the Highlanders entering Edinburgh on the morning after the Battle of Prestonpans
  • oil sketch for the Prince’s horse for Prince Charles Edward and the Highlanders entering Edinburgh on the morning after the Battle of Prestonpans
  • Salmon leistering

Watercolours

  • Portrait of the artist’s daughter, Helen Mary Duncan (1835-56)
  • squared sketch for Anne Page inviting Slender to Dinner

Drawings

  • ink sketch for Prince Charles Edward and the Highlanders entering Edinburgh on the morning after the Battle of Prestonpans
  • A barricade
  • Head of a man

Prints

  • (from Cadell’s edition of Scott’s The Waverley Novels) The Fair Maid of Perth “At the foot of the rock which commanded the view in every direction, sat the Fair Maid of Perth…”
  • (from Cadell’s edition of Scott’s The Waverley Novels) The Bride of Lammermoor “”Am I?”, said the old man looking knowingly at him..”
  • Portrait of the Rt. Hon Fox Maule Ramsay, 11th Earl Dalhousie, 2nd Baron Panmure (1801-74) MP for Perthshire, mezzotint
  • Portrait of Adam Anderson, Rector of Perth Academy, Mathematician and Engineer (1783-1846) mezzotint
  • Prince Charles Edward asleep in one of his hiding places, after the Battle of Culloden, protected by Flora Macdonald and Highland outlaws who are alarmed on their watch
  • Prince Charles Edward and the Highlanders entering Edinburgh on the morning after the Battle of Prestonpans (proof before letters signed by F. Bacon (engraver) and A. Hill (publisher))

Photography (associated)

  • calotype print of Thomas Duncan by D. O. Hill and R. Adamson
  • calotype print of Thomas Duncan and his brother James Duncan by D. O. Hill and R. Adamson

Painting (attributed)

  • Portrait of Rt. Hon John Campbell, 2nd Marquis Breadalbane (1796-1864), oil on canvas
  • Portrait of unidentified young man,oil on canvas
  • Portrait of unidentified young man,oil on canvas
  • Portrait of unidentified young man,oil on canvas
  • Portrait of unidentified woman wearing a floral bonnet, oil on canvas

Painting (associated)

  • Portrait of Adam Anderson, Rector of Perth Academy, Mathematician and Engineer (1783-1846), oil on canvas by J. M. Barclay RSA (1811-86) after Duncan’s original (University of St Andrews)

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