This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of John Duncan, one of Dundee’s most internationally renowned artists. Acclaimed as a leading figure in the Celtic Revival and Symbolist movements, his paintings remain highly popular today. To mark the anniversary a small exhibition has been mounted in the entrance of the Matthew Building at DJCAD.
Duncan was born in the Hilltown area of Dundee in 1866, the son of a butcher and a jute weaver. He gained his first art training at Dundee School of Art (based in the High School) and began his career working as an illustrator for local newspapers and magazines while still a teenager. In 1887 he travelled to London and spent an unhappy time as a commercial artist. From there he moved on to study in Antwerp and Dusseldorf and later spent time in France and Italy.
Between 1889 and 1891 he worked as a professional artist in Dundee, and it was at this time that he met Patrick Geddes, Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee. Geddes was then leading a Celtic Revival movement in Edinburgh and in 1892 Duncan moved there to undertake murals and other decorative art projects.
In 1897 Duncan returned to Dundee and began to exhibit Celtic-inspired artworks. He also gathered around him a group of young decorative artists to form Dundee’s first design collective, exhibiting their work in a special section of the Graphic Arts Association’s exhibitions. He began teaching, first at the YMCA then University College and finally the art school in Dundee Technical Institute (now DJCAD). This led in 1900 to his appointment as Professor of Art in Chicago.
Duncan’s time in Chicago was a frustrating one for him, and in 1903 he returned to Scotland and settled in Edinburgh where he established himself as one of the country’s leading painters. He was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy and became an inspirational figure for younger artists such as the Scottish Colourists. In 1941 he was awarded a major retrospective exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery, an unprecedented honour for a living artist.
Find out more about Duncan in curator Matthew Jarron's new book Independent & Individualist - Art in Dundee 1867-1924.
The Glaive of Light, 1897 (DUNUC ARTS:28)
Illustration from The Evergreen, 1896
Technical Institute syllabus, 1899-1900