Unknown Masters John Duncan: Painting the Fairy Realm
The Scottish painter John Duncan brought the Celtic legends onto the canvas, in efforts to reacquaint the Scottish people with their origins. It was apparently a mission that he had received directly from the fairy realm itself.
by Philip Coppens
John Duncan was born in Dundee, Scotland, on July 17, 1866. As a child, he found his calling to be art; by the age of 11, he was a student at the Dundee School of Art. Art was his calling, as he admitted he heard “faerie music” when painting. He was therefore truly angelic, born with a mission to paint the fairy realm. After Dundee, he continued his studies in Antwerp and Düsseldorf, before returning to Dundee.
Duncan had been allowed to study art from a very young age, but despite this privilege, it was also clear that he would have hoped for an even better education. Duncan argued that teaching art to children had to guarantee that no ideas and methods were imposed on the child that were beyond that child’s stage of culture. He felt there was too much insistence on technique, as well as forcing the child to see the world in an adult manner. Duncan fondly remembered how as a schoolboy, a classmate drew on his slate unending conflicts between Highlanders and Sassenachs. As each men fell, he was wiped off the slate and redrawn stretched upon the ground.
Throughout his life, he would seek out Italy, where on his first visit, he had fallen in love with Botticelli and Fra Angelico, but felt horribly disappointed with Raphael. During later visits to the continent, he would especially fall in love with the work of Parisian artist Gustave Moreau. Like Duncan, Moreau painted mythological subjects in a way that Duncan strived for. In order to accomplish what Moreau had mastered, Duncan realized that he needed to change some of his habits. But there was a bigger problem: he realized he needed to work more with his “inner eye”; there was a disconnect between what he saw and the manner in which he brought it to a canvas. There had to be less fear, he had to trust himself more, allowing himself to paint in full color. In retrospect, it are indeed those paintings in which he employs color to the full that are those that made Duncan the distinguished artist he is now recognized to be. And it is probably not a coincidence that it are precisely these colorful paintings that depict the Celtic myths he cherished so deeply.
His main interests were Celtic myths and legends, especially those based on Arthurian legend. When he was ready to display his art to an audience, he met the imminent botanist and sociologist Patrick Geddes, who was lecturing at the University of Dundee during the summer term. John Kemplay underlines that Geddes’ effect on Duncan cannot be overstressed. He would shape Duncan’s outlook, as well as be a generous benefactor and manager for the upcoming talent. Without Geddes, the world may never have known of John Duncan. Geddes’ own mission in life was creating a Celtic Revival: bringing the people of Scotland back to their roots and give them a true sense of identity. It was a major ambition, which he had broken down in various sections, some of which were more sociological than ideological.
In 1890, Geddes had acquired Ramsay Lodge and the adjoining land in Ramsay Garden, as well as the lease on the Short’s Observatory, which he renamed the Outlook Tower. The properties were right next to Edinburgh Castle and therefore primary real estate. Geddes wanted the people of Edinburgh to see their city through new eyes, as well as allow the town to have a balance between the poor and the rich, allowing for true social integration. Geddes lectured extensively on all these subjects, especially during his Summer Meetings. When he was brought to Duncan, he realized that the painter could add art to his lectures.
Before doing so, Geddes instilled in Duncan the core value of his mission. Duncan would later write to Geddes: “I am your very faithfull disciple. I carry your notes with me as my Scriptures, and shall diligently strive to live up to them.” Duncan had the eye and the hands, Geddes had provided him with a mission, but it was Duncan who studied, to learn the details of the mythology he was going to recreate for a Scottish, early 20th century audience. As he did, he learned about the sun myths, the stories of Osiris, Cuchulainn and the Archangel Michael and so many powerful Celtic myths that he would paint, in the hope to reconnect the Scottish people with its lost heritage.
Botticelli had the Medici fortune to support him financially; Geddes was a university professor with moderate means. But Geddes was well-connected. In 1899, Geddes traveled to the United States as part of his devotion to the International Association for the Advancement of Science, Arts and Education. In Chicago, he connected with Mrs. Emmons Blaine, and found a job for Duncan, who would spend three years in the Windy City, where he began to spread his wings. Afterwards, he would return to Edinburgh and continue his art, to ever greater acclaim. Duncan’s most famous painting is probably “The Riders of the Sidhe”, created in 1911. The “shee” are the fairy folk. They were said to dwell in Newgrange. Each year on the summer solstice, they rode from their dwellings to the sacred circle to initiate the mortals into the mysteries of their faith. Each rider carried a symbol: the first rider carried wisdom, the second love, the third will in action, the fourth will in its passive form. Duncan used the Grail Cup as the symbol of love, the Tree of Life as wisdom, a sword and a crystal for will in its two forms. In the original myth, the Sidhe carried the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann: the cauldron of Dagda and the sword of Nuada. The other two treasures, which Duncan decided to adapt, are the spear of Lugh and the Liath Faill or Stone of Destiny. These he made into a sword and a crystal.
The inspiration for the painting apparently began during a visit to London, where he managed to see Edward Burne-Jones’s “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid”. The painting shows two powerful people and it is the same strength of character that makes “The Riders” stand out. In “The Riders”, a seascape can be seen in the background. The sea was very important to Duncan, often seeking out the sands and waters as they appeared on the Hebridean islands, which were close to his heart.
Many people were influenced by the Celtic Revival, including the Scottish singer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser. She would become close friends with Duncan, who painted her while on a trip to Eriskay in 1905 and again in 1923. In Eriskay, Marjory witnessed many Gaelic folk songs whom she realized were endangered of disappearing as a result of population decline. As she was a singer, she began to record and transcribe the music of the Hebrides, so that it would not be lost. Duncan seems to have been truly inspired by “The Riders”, for his next painting was equally legendary, “Tristan and Isolde”, which would become another of his masterpieces. The story is a tragic love account; Tristan is wounded in battle and lies ill for three years until he is carried to Ireland where he is cured by Isolde. During the voyage back to his native Cornwall, the two drink of a love phial, which is the scene Duncan depicted.
The painting was created in 1912, the year Duncan fell in love. In her memories, Cecile Watson claims that Duncan “fell desperately in love with the beautiful young woman who was reputed to have found (in a trance) the Holy Grail of Glastonbury.” That person was Christine Allen, who was 19 years younger than the artist. Christine had come from Wraysbury in Buckinghamshire, but was now living with her mother in Edinburgh. Her father, at one time the manager of the Great Western Railway, was deceased. Her mother apparently came to Edinburgh to live closer or with her family following the death of her husband.
Christine was indeed Duncan’s “Grail Maiden”. In 1902, Wellesley Tudor Pole dreamed that he was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey. When he travelled to the town, he was able to make a number of fascinating archaeological discoveries. Pole however believed that a greater treasure was to be discovered in Glastonbury. His intuition told him he needed a “triad of maidens”, to find whatever it was he was looking for. In September 1906, Pole, together with his sister Katherine and her friends Janet and Christine Allen, discovered a blue glass bowl in the sluice at Bride’s Mound. The artifact had been placed there by Dr. John Arthur Goodchild in 1899. The triad would later show Alice Buckton the ancient pilgrimage trail, before Christine moved to Edinburgh, where she fell in love with Duncan. Duncan’s greatest masterpiece is seen to be “St Bride”, which he created early in his marriage. She was seen as a bridge between the Celts and Christianity. Her legend recounted that she was the daughter of Dubhach the Druid and was conveyed from Iona to Bethlehem by angels on the first eve of Christmas. Iona was the heart of the Celtic religion and her removal from the island illustrated the Celtic demise.
By the autumn of 1913, Duncan was married and had completed three masterpieces. Alas, he noted that his imagination had dried up, while he continued to be unhappy with his technique. Before the First World War started, he nevertheless managed to accomplish a few more paintings with mythological themes. 1913 was also the year his eldest daughter was born, Christine Bunty; Vivian followed in 1915.
The onset of the war, however, had resulted in a disastrous financial situation for Duncan and his family. As he was starving, he was also unhappy with his life as a painter. But painting is what he did and fortunately, a commission from Sir Robert Lorimer saved the life of him and his family. At this point in his life, his art also became more influenced by the Byzantine style, making for an interesting marriage between Byzantine and Celtic mythology.
His own marriage, however, was unhappy. He adored his children and provided them with an interesting education, in which they knew about Paleolithic cave art far earlier than any other children their age. They thought, however, that daddy’s work was ugly. After the war, his wife and children moved away. When friends saw them on the streets of Cape Town, Duncan came to terms with the reality of things and filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion.
After the First World War, Duncan gained financial stability as a painter, but he felt that art in the 1920s was a great disappointment. He was dissatisfied with the Impressionists, whom he felt took too much liberty with workmanship. However, the main problem seemed to be that Duncan realized he had lost his “inner eye” forever: his imagination had totally dried up. His painting of “St Columba Bidding Farewell to the White Horse” could just as well be a portrait of Duncan, asking himself where his capabilities to access the Otherworld had gone to. The answer apparently was positive.
He was now alone, but Geddes was still around. He asked Duncan to do a drawing of Joan of Arc, as well as five additional murals for Ramsay Lodge. Despite his masterpieces, he had always cherished the initial murals he painted there, arguing they were his best work. By now, he rarely touched upon Celtic mythology; most of his paintings involved Christian imagery. Most of his new commissions were for religious paintings. His last great painting was one of Mary Queen of Scots, void of any mythical content.
He spent time on the islands, including Iona. From it, he wrote: “Iona, dear and lovely as ever. Didn’t paint, of course.” Duncan sought out the islands that featured so prominently in Celtic mythology, that had been the backdrop of the legends he had painted. Maybe he went there because he hoped that they would reawaken his inner eye? Its shores, he had painted. But the drive to paint had disappeared, even though he continued to work on many projects for several more years. Then, a Second World War came, one which he was able to outlive, but not for long: he died on November 23, 1945, aged 79, in his house in Edinburgh.
Some have labeled Duncan a madman. It seems Duncan was a child prodigy, who was – maybe too late – discovered and nurtured by Patrick Geddes. For a decade, he managed to bring out the best in Duncan, but as he became older and settled in an “ordinary lifestyle”, something died in Duncan. He was an unhappy man, especially when it came to art technique, seldom happy with his own accomplishments and critical of many if not most others, which sometimes even included the likes of Botticelli. If he truly fell in love with his wife because of her visions of the Holy Grail, it may be that he thought he had finally found a kindred spirit, with whom he could share his mission, and who would inspire him in his art. History has shown us that this was not the case. The disappointment of his marriage may have atrophied his inner eye even faster.
But in the final analysis, even though Duncan could have been far more than he ever was, he was definitely big enough, leaving a series of paintings that forever will be linked with the Celtic Revival, but which, far more importantly, truly allow us to connect to that lost land of Celtic mythology. Duncan helped to keep the Fairy Realm alive and make it accessible, to us mere mortals.