John Duncan was born in Dundee, the son of a butcher and a cattleman, but had no interest in the family business. Instead, he studied at the Dundee School of Art, worked in London as a commercial illustrator and then crossed the channel and studied at the Antwerp and Düsseldorf Academies. During his life, he earned his living almost exclusively through teaching posts and painting commissions. His work's subject matter springs from Celtic, Greco-Roman and Christian Mythology and has a dreamy and mystical quality.
Aoife, 1914 [Photo credit: City of Edinburgh Council]
Aoife is a character from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. In Tochmarc Emire saga she lives east of a land called Alpi where she is at war with a rival woman warrior, Scáthach. When a battle breaks against Scáthach, Aoife finds herself in a fight against the Ulaid hero Cú Chulainn, who has come to train in arms under Scáthach. Although Aífe shatters Cú Chulainn's sword, Cú Chulainn eventually overpowers her, holds his sword at her throat as she begs for her life. He chooses not to kill her, on two conditions: that she cease hostilities with Scáthach and she bear him a son. After he leaves Aífe pregnant, Cú Chulainn gives her a gold ring to give to the child, and instructs her that when he is seven he is to come to Ireland in search of him, but he must not identify himself to anyone. Years later, a boy, Connla by name, comes to Ireland and his precocious prowess alarms Cú Chulainn. Because he will not identify himself, Cú Chulainn fights Connla and kills him. Then Cú Chulainn sees on Connla's finger the gold ring he had given Aífe, realising he has just killed his only son.
Fand and Manannan, 1913 [Photo credit: McLean Museum and Art Gallery – Inverclyde Council]
Fand and Manannan is a love couple of otherworldly deities in Irish Mythology. In the Ulster Cycle tale, Serglige Con Culainn ("The Sickbed of Cúchulainn") Fand has an ill-fated affair with the Irish warrior Cúchulainn. When Fand sees that Cúchulainn's jealous wife, Emer, is worthy of him, she decides to return to Manannan, who then shakes his magical cloak of mists between Fand and Cúchulainn so that they may never meet again.
Force and Reason, 1939 [Photo credit: Glasgow Museums]
In Greek Mythology, The Sphinx is a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent-headed tail. In late lore it was said that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Aethiopian homeland to guard the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes where she asks all passersby this riddle: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" She strangled and devoured anyone who could not answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: "Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age."
Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, 1923 [Photo credit: The National Trust for Scotland, Pitmedden Garden]
The Queen of Sheba was a legendary figure who has her roots in ancient Yemen. She is mentioned in the 'Old Testament' in relation to King Solomon whose court she visited. In the 'First Book of Kings', chapter 10, verse 22 it is written 'For the King had at sea a navy of Tharnish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharnish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks'.
Jehanne d'Arc et sa garde ecossaise, 1896 [Photo credit: City of Edinburgh Council]
As part of the Auld Alliance, Scotland fought with the French and Joan of Arc against the English during the Hundred Years War. Thousands of Scots arrived in 1420 to help Charles VII fight their common enemy. Many of them fought alongside Joan of Arc at all her great victories up to 1430 when she was captured at Compiegne.
Merlin and the Fairy Queen [Photo credit: Paisley Art Institute Collection, held by Paisley Museum and Art Galleries]
Morgan Le Fey, or Morgan of the Fairies, is a powerful enchantress in the Arthurian legend who has appeared in countless stories throughout the centuries. In cyclical prose works such as the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, she turns into a dangerous enemy of King Arthur and his knights. In those tales Morgan usually concentrates on witchcraft, ether by studying under Merlin or in seclusion in the exile of far-away forests, all the while plotting her vengeance against the hated Guinevere and King Arthur.
Saint Bride, 1913 [Photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland]
Study for Saint Bride
The Coming of Bride, 1917 [Photo credit: Glasgow Museums]
Saint Bride (c.?451 – 525), as she is usually referred to in Scotland, also known as Saint Bridgit, Saint Brigid of Kildare, or Brigid of Ireland, was an early Irish Christian nun, abbess, and foundress of several monasteries of nuns, which was famous and revered. Brigid, the "exalted one", is also the name of a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. She appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. Given that Saint Brigid shares many of the goddess's attributes and her feast day was originally a pagan festival (Imbolc) marking the beginning of spring, it has been argued that the Saint is a Christianisation of the goddess.
Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Orb, 1909
Hymn to the Rose,1907 [Photo credit: City of Edinburgh Council]
Masque of Love [Photo credit: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums]