Although long retired from his active role as Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Duncan Thomson’s contribution to the cultural life of the nation deserves much wider recognition than at present. His major achievements are his exemplary stewardship of the Portrait Gallery, his influential work as an art historian and his tireless efforts to save and secure the Mansfield Traquair Centre for the nation.
After studying both art history and painting at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art, Dr Thomson was appointed Deputy Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1967. He became Keeper in 1982, a position he held until his retirement in 1997. It could reasonably be said that during his period in charge the Portrait Gallery jettisoned its rather dusty image, emerging instead as a thoroughly modern museum, providing both entertainment and enlightenment and encouraging greater public access.
The number and scope of exhibitions increased dramatically – photography was at long last admitted as a serious art form and Portraiture itself, largely dismissed by the modern movement as outmoded and whose only purpose was to provide flattering pictures of rich nonentities was reinstated as an art form with infinite possibilities for human engagement and public dialogue.
In order to demonstrate the enduring vitality of portraiture Dr Thomson launched an innovative series of commissioned portraits by contemporary artists. His initial decision to have Avigdor Arikha paint a portrait of the Queen Mother proved truly inspired. Arikha’s subsequent portraits of Lord Hume and of Ludovic Kennedy and Moira Shearer, followed later by John Bellany’s magnificent portrait of Peter Maxwell Davies made a significant statement about the modern portrait.
Dr Thomson was unafraid to look beyond Scotland in his choice of artist. Maggie Hambling painted Mick McGahey and Patrick Heron tackled Jo Grimmond. The results were memorable and were significant additions to the national collections.
Dr Thomson’s work as an art historian is equally distinguished and important. His ground-breaking study of George Jamesone opened doors on art in Scotland in the 17th century and his scholarship in these areas has been taken up and further developed by younger historians, grateful for his pioneering discoveries. He is without doubt the foremost living authority on the work of Henry Raeburn and in this case, rare insight gained through the practice of painting during his student years enabled him to make valuable and sensible judgements on the authenticity of Raeburn’s pictures.
Likewise, his practical understanding of how paintings are constructed permitted his brilliant appreciation of the works of Avigdor Arikha (Phaidon Press,1994), providing further evidence of the wide-ranging expertise Dr Thomson commands as an art historian. His fastidious and engaging A History of The Scottish National Portrait Gallery tracing how notions of display have changed and how collecting policies developed over more than a century to shape the collection into what it is today, was published in 2011.
His leadership and drive during the campaign to save and secure the Mansfield Place Church deserves special mention. The building, designed by the eminent architect Robert Rowand Anderson (who also designed the Portrait Gallery) had fallen into a shocking state of repair by the 1990’s. The church interior contained the remarkable murals of Phoebe Anna Traquair – a unique undertaking in the field of large-scale wall painting in Scotland and indeed, they have been referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Scotland. That the building and the murals have now been restored represents a triumph of clear-sighted thinking and profound cultural understanding.
Future generations will be indebted to all those involved in this great project.
Duncan Thomson’s long life of public service has been devoted to the arts and to education and the good the arts can bring to the wider population. The function of the National Galleries, especially the Portrait Gallery with its emphasis on history and identity cannot be over-estimated.