John Duncan was born in Dundee in 1866, and began his career at the Art School at the age of 11. He went to London and Germany and spent four years as Professor of Fine Art in America. It has been said of some of Duncan’s work that it is “transportation from the land of fairy fancy“.
Duncan was one of the most eclectic and idiosyncratic Scottish artists associated with the Celtic Revival movement which encompassed both visual arts and literature during the 1890s and in Edinburgh derived its guiding inspiration from the philosophy and aesthetics of Sir Patrick Geddes. Duncan believed that art would and should play a part in shaping national identity.
Steeped in the study of early Italian fresco painting, Duncan familiarised himself with experimental techniques of tempera then widely practised by his own contemporaries among the mural painters of France. He amalgamated the flattened linear forms of the Renaissance and the modern tradition with the spirals and interlaces of Celtic design to create a distinctive style which was deliberately dreamlike and otherworldly.
Although known for his painting & illustration he is also responsible for the Witches Well at the Esplanade, Edinburgh Castle. This ornately designed bronze well was made in 1896 and erected in 1912, following a suggestion by Patrick Geddes. It commemorates the witches and warlocks who were burned at the stake on the Castle Hill from 1479 to 1722. It is believed that no fewer than 300 were dragged up to the spot, tied to a stake, and burnt.
The plaque inscription reads: ” This fountain, designed by John Duncan, RSA is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and the serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes, while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasise the dual purpose of common objects.”
He died in Edinburgh in 1945.
Image © National Galleries of Scotland, Mike Small, Estate of John Duncan, Historic Environment Scotland | Licensor Scran