Enlightened Victorian James Duncan comes home to the Benmore Botanic Garden in Argyll

By Richard Moss | 14 March 2011
a photo of a rolling landscape with trees and hills
Benmore Botanic Garden, nr Dunoon, Argyll© Royal Botanic Gardens Scotland
Exhibition: James Duncan of Benmore, an Enlightened Victorian, Courtyard Gallery, Benmore Botanic Garden, nr Dunoon, Argyll, until May 22 2011

In a country of collectors whose names have become synonymous with some of Scotland’s greatest museums, the name of James Duncan is not one that trips readily off the tongue of many Scots.

Unlike Burrell or Rennie-Mackintosh, the forgotten Victorian polymath and collector remains largely unknown despite extraordinary commercial achievements in his lifetime and significant contributions to the sciences and the arts.

Now the life and times of this great Scottish figure are being commemorated with a new exhibition at his former home, Benmore Botanic Garden in Argyll.

an old black and white photograph of an elderly man with white hair and beard
James Duncan© Mansfield College, Oxford
For the first time, the exhibition explores his role as an important scientist and collector and a Scot of great industry. As well as being an industrialist Duncan was a technical innovator and one of the most committed philanthropists of his time, giving 20 per cent of his annual £100,000 salary to a range of causes.

He was also a major collector of fine art whose Benmore Gallery included works by the likes of Raeburn, Delacroix, Corot and Renoir until a downturn in the sugar trade caused him to sell his collection and his estates.

The latter included what is now Benmore Botanic Garden, which was shaped by Duncan in a series of ambitious landscape designs that saw him oversee the planting of more than six million trees during his time there.

Gifted to the nation through the care of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh by the Younger family in 1925, Benmore’s 120 acres today boast more than 300 species of rhododendron, Bhutanese and Chilean plantings and a spectacular avenue of Giant Redwoods.

a photo of a rock and fern feature with stone archways and walkways in a garden
Distinctive Victorian Fernery, built by Duncan and restored by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (2009)
“He commissioned features such as the Golden Gates – shown at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878 – as well as building a fernery and the largest greenhouses in Scotland,” explains Benmore Curator Peter Baxter.

“Duncan also employed his significant wealth in helping the poor in Scotland and England and improving the working conditions of his workforce, building churches and schools, providing medical care and introducing an eight hour working day.”

Many of the details in the exhibition about Duncan’s life were pieced together by art historian Dr Andrew M Watson whose biography, James Duncan: An Enlightened Victorian, was published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh last year

a black and white photo of a Scottish country house castle with a large extension to its right
Benmore House with Duncan's picture gallery to the right (circa 1889-90)© Courtesy of David Younger
Watson first came across the forgotten philanthropist while researching Victorian collectors of French art when his name came up in connection with Eugène Delacroix’s masterpiece The Death of Sardanapalus. It soon emerged that he was one of the most important entrepreneurs and collectors of the late 19th century.

The exhibition also reveals that while at Benmore, Duncan entertained a lively band of characters as diverse as the chemist James "Paraffin" Young, the preacher Charles Spurgeon, the social reformer Henry Boyd, and the artist Gustave Doré.

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