John Duncan

Armand Cabrera

John Duncan was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1866. At 11 years old he attended the Dundee school of art. In two years he began illustrating for local paper in Dundee. These assignments gave him an opportunity to go to London and work as a book illustrator. After three years in London Duncan felt he needed more training and wanted to leave illustration to pursue painting. He studied drawing and painting at the Antwerp School of Art in Belgium. After his instruction in Belgium Duncan toured France and Italy and viewed the great artists of the past. It was in Italy that he was most inspired by the Italian painters Botticelli and Fra Angelico.

Returning to Scotland Duncan met Patrick Geddes a biologist and educator. Geddes hired Duncan to paint his home and offered him a teaching position at a new art school Geddes was starting. When the school eventually closed Geddes secured a position in America for Duncan at the Chicago Institute starting in 1900 and lasting three years.
Duncan returned to Edinburgh and opened a studio and began working to create a unique voice with his work. He decided to incorporate Celtic themes and strive for better color and handling. He struggled to have his canvases reflect the images he saw in his mind. He disliked oil paints, which led him to experiment with other media. By 1910 he thought he had found his medium with tempera. His first large work with tempera was The Riders of the Sidhe, 45 x 69 inches.
Duncan was elected to the Scottish Royal Academy and began exhibiting in their annual shows. His studio became a gathering place for artists, writers and other Celtic Revivalists. In 1912 he married Christine Allen and the couple had two children.
At the outbreak of WW1 created financial difficulties for the artist and his family as his commissions dried up and Duncan struggled to make ends meet. His financial problems never recovered after the war and had a debilitating effect on his marriage and in 1925 his wife took his two children and left.
Duncan continued to struggle with his process and was never satisfied with the work he was producing. At times he would think his earlier work better and would go off and change his methods, only to be disappointed again.
Sales and commissions were few and his large tempera paintings were labor intensive and took him many months to complete. Geddes still gave him commissions and he still received some mural work for religious subjects but his popularity dwindled. In the 1930’s he worked with stained glass as well as his painting. In 1941 the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh put on a retrospective of his work; a first for a living artist. John Duncan died in his home at the age of 79 in 1945.
The paintings of John Duncan A Scottish Symbolist
John Kemplay
Pomegranate Art Books 1994

I often Despair, because my work does not improve. What I gain in one way I lose in another. Does one grow wiser with time or do some doors close as others open?
~John Duncan