Alexander Runciman

1736 – 1785

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Alexander Runciman was one of the earliest exponents of original etching in Scotland and was one of the first artists to introduce the sublime and expressive depiction of human form derived from Michelangelo and high Renaissance Italian art to these isles. Having begun his career as a landscape artist Alexander Runciman progressed into the field of classical history painting and in 1766 travelled to Italy to further his study in this branch of art. It was while in Rome that Alexander Runciman met the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli who became his friend and closest contemporary in style. This companionship was to have considerable influence on the work of both artists but, contrary to previous opinion, it is now clear that it was the work of the elder artist, Alexander Runciman which was to determine the style of Henry Fuseli rather than vice versa.

Alexander Runciman’s unbridelled imagination introduced a wild air of inspired extravagance into even the most stern of his historical subjects. A truly original genius, his energetic portrayal of heroic actions, perilous toil and human passions was to have a dramatic effect upon the younger Fuseli. It is beyond question that Alexander Runciman’s images of this nature predate those of Fuseli and indeed one of their contemporaries said upon Alexander Runciman’s death “I always thought I saw Runciman revived in Fuseli”.

Alexander Runciman remained in Italy for five years and after a brief period in London, returned to Edinburgh where he was appointed Professor at the newly established Academy of Arts. His most famous series of works were his designs based on Ossian for the Great Hall at Pennycuick, commissioned by his patron Sir John Clerk (the father of Clerk of Eldin). These were considered a great national work by the Scots and reflect the considerable influence which the Sistine Chapel must have had upon Alexander Runciman during his time in Rome. Alexander Runciman’s health began to fail whilst working on the ceiling at Pennycuick and his health declined gradually until his death in 1785 at the age of 49.