Duncan is one of the heroes of the international Symbolist movement. He has always been honoured in Scotland. In 1941, four years before his death, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the National Gallery in Edinburgh, the first time that a living artist had enjoyed this distinction; and a major exhibition took place in Edinburgh and Dundee in 1986. But south of the border he is much less well known, and the presence of some of his finest works in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican in 1989 was hailed as a revelation. The publication of John Kemplay's monograph in 1994 has made him more familiar.
Born in Dundee, the son of a cattle dealer, Duncan was studying at the Dundee School of Art by the age of eleven. After three years in London doing hack work for publishers, he continued his studies in Antwerp and Dusseldorf and spent a winter in Rome, where he developed an ardent admiration for Michelangelo. Back in Dundee, he became a member of the local Graphic Arts Association, and in 1898-9 he shared a studio with the brilliant but short-lived George Dutch Davidson (see lot 237), whom he greatly influenced. However from 1892 he was mainly based in Edinburgh, where he was closely associated with Patrick Geddes. Biologist, town planner and prophet of the Celtic Revival, Geddes offered him the post of Director of his new art school, and Duncan sought to express Geddes' ideas in a number of mural projects, notably a series of panels illustrating scenes from Celtic history which he painted in the common room of University Hall at Ramsay Lodge. He was also involved with Geddes' influential magazine, The Evergreen. In 1899 he embarked on a tour of America with Geddes, and in 1900 he became Associate Professor of Art at Chicago University, holding the post for two years.
On returning to Scotland Duncan made his home in Edinburgh, where his studio in Torphichen Street and later St. Bernard's Crescent became a centre for a lively group of artists and intellectuals, including Geddes, Mrs Kennedy Fraser, Father John Gray, Lady Margaret Sackville, and such younger talents as Eric Robertson, Cecile Walton and Joyce Cary. One of his associates, the novelist Mary Agnes Hamilton, described him in her novel Yes (1914) as 'accumulating unsaleable works which pleased him but not the buyers'. In fact he received many commissions for altarpieces, church murals and stained glass, and was elected A.R.S.A in 1910 and R.S.A in 1923. He was a great experimenter with techniques, and much of his work is in tempera. His subject matter remained rooted in the Celtic Revival and the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, but he also painted landscapes in Iona and elsewhere and took a keen interest in the development of modern art. Many regarded him as a mystic, and he confessed to hearing 'fairy music' while he painted. This rather fey quality led him into trouble when he fell in love with and married a girl who believed she had discovered the Holy Grail in a well at Glastonbury; the marriage was not a success and his wife eventually left him, taking herself and her two daughters to South Africa.
The present watercolours date from 1895 and are designs for mural paintings carried out by Duncan for James Beveridge at Pitreavie Castle, Dunfermline. The commission came through Patrick Geddes, who recommended Duncan on the strength of the murals that he had already carried out in the Common Room at University Hall and in Geddes' own house. Indeed, the theme that Duncan had illustrated in the latter paintings, the evolution of pipe music, anticipates that of Orpheus, celebrated for his playing of the lyre, at Pitreavie. The Orpheus designs were published in the influential Studio magazine in 1897, and described there as 'most characteristic and beautiful'. The writer compares Duncan to Puvis de Chavannes in his respect for the flatness of the wall and the light tone of his colours, although the difference between them is also stressed. Duncan's 'arrangements are more ornamental..., and his ornament is more employed in detail... Classic restraint marks his composition and technique, while the dramatic intensity of his treatment betrays the fervour of the Celtic temperament'.
The story of Orpheus held a powerful appeal for Symbolist painters, especially the part of the story illustrated in Duncan's third panel. According to legend, having lost Eurydice as she followed him out of Hades, Orpheus was torn to death by Thracian woman celebrating the orgies of Bacchus; his head was thrown into the river Hebrus, where it continued to lament Euridice as it floated down to the Aegean sea. Artists saw the severed but still singing head as an image of the immortality of art. Gustave Moreau exhibited a famous picture of the subject at the Salon of 1866, and the theme inspired Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, Alexandre Son, and others. In England its exponents included J.W. Waterhouse, Robert Anning Bell, and Charles Ricketts. For a full discussion of the subject, see Dorothy M. Kosinski, Orpheus in Nineteenth-Century Symbolism, Michigan, 1989.