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John Duncan Fergusson: A sketch between Scotland and France

Born in Leith in 1874, John Duncan Fergusson was a gifted artist who received little artistic
schooling. He dropped out of medical school after two years to pursue his passion in painting
and, after spending some time in Edinburgh to study art, decided to leave believing the process
of teaching to be ineffective and detrimental to creative freedom – a philosophy by which he lived.

By around 1900, Fergusson set out to France, Morocco, and Spain on artistic pilgrimages, taking
on influences from the French Impressionists, particularly in the works of Edgar Degas, Edouard
Manet, and Paul Cézanne. He settled in Paris in 1907 and holidayed regularly to the south of
France. Despite his deeply-felt European and international outlook, Fergusson never forgot his
Scottish heritage; a proud Scot, the son of Gaelic-speaking parents, and a torch-bearer in
reigniting a Celtic history of Scotland in the visual arts.

Fergusson wrote that “to go to Paris was the natural thing for a Scot”. The shared Celtic heritage
between Scotland and France was strongly felt in Fergusson’s view, and his practice was a
means to renew this cultural alliance in a way that could point Scotland’s artistic heritage
outwards into Europe instead of, at times, regressing within the walls of its own academies and
traditional establishments.

The University of St Andrews Museum Collections has one artwork by Fergusson currently held
in the Boswell Collection of Scottish Fine Art:

Bread and Wine; and view of mountains, Cassis, sketch, 1919. See this and other similar artworks on our Boswell Collection Website.

In drawing a view of France in 1919 – a France with its independent salons, vibrant modernism,
and popular rejection of academic art – Fergusson is envisioning a Scotland in similar terms. This
small, humble sketch speaks to Fergusson’s time in the south of France and to the projection of
what Scotland could become in equal measure.

In 1943, Fergusson’s text, ‘Modern Scottish Painting’, was published, setting out arguments for
an independent and free Scottish art, established on the grounds of an independent Scottish
nation; Fergusson believed that for Scottish art and artists to be free, the nation had to be free.

It can be argued that it is within these terms that this sketch’s ‘Scottishness’ is most securely
captured; the artwork isn’t Scottish in who or what is represented in it, but Scottish by what is
envisioned through it.

Fergusson wrote that France allowed him to be Scottish, so Scottish that he had to leave and
return home. Upon returning, he lived and worked in Glasgow, and died in 1961.

The 9th March 2024 marks 150 years since the birth of one of Scotland’s most important artists. Fergusson captured and recrafted the Scottish spirit in the colourist style of painting, paving the way for a free and independent Scottish art to stand in distinction to – yet shoulder-to-shoulder with – its European neighbours.

Blog written by Struan Watson, Collections Assistant at University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums.