St Bride (1913) is a flight across the ocean from Ireland to the Holy Land. Painted at the time of cubism and the Blue Rider, it doesn’t have a lot in common with the mainstream of European art. Yet as much as any artist of the time, John Duncan (1866–1945) was considering his place in history and in the world, and the role of art in modern life.
Duncan was born and educated in Dundee, leaving school at 14 to work as a commercial illustrator. He studied art in Antwerp with Charles Verlat, a painter of historical and genre scenes, whose realism was far from Duncan’s inclinations, and traveled in Italy where he was impressed by the spiritual qualities of quattrocento artists such as Botticelli and Fra Angelico. On his return to Scotland he initially worked as a commercial illustrator, before deciding to pursue art more seriously. He was also a good teacher: his travels took him to the faculty of the Chicago Institute in 1900, and he later spent many years at Edinburgh College of Art, first teaching and then as their librarian from 1925-45.
His work relates to many trends in European art, even if not those movements which are today most esteemed or popular. The Pre-Raphaelites in England were a strong influence, in his colours and religious themes, as were the medieval leanings of the Arts and Craft movement associated with William Morris. Duncan was also influenced by European symbolism. And there is a strong element of art nouveau (one of whose greatest practitioners was the Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Although the work has a decorative quality, that was not a dirty word in that era, when under the influence of Wagner ideals of total art led to the concept of transformed living space, seen in Mackintosh’s designs and the murals and tapestries of Irish-born artist Phoebe Anna Traquair.
Duncan was involved with the Celtic Revival, which sought to investigate the legendary past of Britain’s fringes and construct a new cultural identity. Central to this was his friendship with Patrick Geddes, the pioneering town-planner whose work ranged from laying out the new Edinburgh Zoo to planning central Tel Aviv for the British mandate administration. Geddes sought to create more organic cities, uses biological and evolutionary principles and rejecting simple geometric forms.
The Celtic Revival began with James Macpherson’s Ossian verse in the second half of the 18th century when the growing importance of Edinburgh as a literary and publishing centre made it possible to sell myths of the Scottish highlands to audiences in England; a market later exploited by Walter Scott. At the same time, classic Welsh literature was increasingly being translated and occasionally faked. But the movement flourished from the mid 19th century, with Matthew Arnold lecturing on Celtic literature and poems on Celtic themes from poets such as Tennyson and the central figure of poet Fiona MacLeod. MacLeod was the pseudonym of Paisley-born William Sharp. Sharp was a friend of Scottish king of fairy-painting Joseph Noel Paton and knew Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Irish poet W B Yeats; like Yeats, Sharp was a member of occult organisation the Golden Dawn. The Celtic Revival had its greatest flowering in Ireland, where nationalism demanded the construction of a new national culture seen as hitherto lacking, beginning the late 19th century and going into independence.
However, in time archaeological, ethnographic and linguistic research came to replace the myths of the Celt with historical fact – just as more than a century before the legendary poems of Ossian had proven to be nothing but fakes. And particularly in Irish writing, modernism replaced Romantic revivalism.
While he painted many religious subjects, and was in his later life one of Scotland’s leading stained glass artists, Duncan’s spiritual beliefs were far from conventional. He joined Edinburgh Theosophical Society in 1909, a movement which pursued universal brotherhood, unsectarian; studied comparative religion and philosophy; occultism, secret laws of nature, hidden human powers.
The story of St Bride lies between Christian myth and old Irish folk tale. Bride or Bridget was a holy woman borne to Jerusalem to witness the arrival of the baby Jesus; in the painting the angels’ robes show scenes from the Nativity. The painting is an allegory of revelation and enlightenment, of spiritual transport; it describes a transport achieved during prayer, not one resulting from hard physical striving. To depict this, Duncan draws on the influence of mystical Renaissance art such as Botticelli. In the nineteenth century, Scottish art had drawn largely on subjects from history and establishment literature (Shakespeare and Scott), as well as genre painting and portraiture.
At a time when European art was dominated by varieties of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Duncan and the Celtic Revival shows the rejection of a primarily visual art in favour of something ancient and inward-looking. Scotland had been a centre of Christian monasticism in the middle ages, and a home or birthplace to major religious figures: St Columba, Duns Scotus, John Knox, Thomas Chalmers. But unlike Italy or Germany, it had no tradition of art owing to the Calvinist Reformation in the late sixteenth century, when most religious artworks were removed from churches and many were destroyed. Only a few exceptions, such as that of Hugo van der Goes, survived.
Duncan’s other most famous painting, The Riders of the Sidhe (1911) in Dundee, also relates to folklore. It draws on late medieval tapestry (compare the Hunt of the Unicorn, now in New York) and classical sculpture, as well as following the tradition of Scottish fairy paintings such as those of Joseph Noel Paton. Duncan takes a similar motif to Paton’s The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve (1867) but instead of Paton’s detailed semi-naturalistic landscape and complex arrangement of figures, Duncan puts the horses and riders side-on like a frieze. In St Bride, he adds naturalistic gulls and seals to the otherwise stylised scene; they add the element of Scottishness and a sense of the wild remoteness of the Celtic lands.
In some ways, Duncan’s work appears astonishingly dated, totally adrift from present high-cultural tastes with its combination of quattrocento spirituality and Victorian decorativeness. Yet it also represents the emergence of a distinctively Scottish sensibility, not dependent on England but linked through a common Celtic identity to Ireland, as well as drawing on the Italian Renaissance tradition. Scottish visionaries in their diverse quests for a new society, no matter how forward-looking they may be, have always drawn on old myths. Duncan was looking for a new art and a new mental state rather than a new polity, but his art shows an ability to construct both a new national identity and a new art.
John Duncan, St Bride, 1913. Tempera on canvas, 112 x 144 cm. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Photo by the author.)