Alexander Runciman was born in the West Port in Edinburgh in 1736 and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to the painter Robert Norie in the firm established by Robert’s father, James. After Robert’s death, Runciman managed the firm on behalf of Helen Norie, Robert’s widow. He also painted stage sets for the Edinburgh Theatre. He left the Norie firm in 1767, however, when Sir James Clerk of Penicuik commissioned him and his younger brother John to paint a major decorative scheme in the newly built Penicuik House. As part of the deal Sir James agreed to fund the brothers on a study trip to Rome. Alexander arrived in Rome in May 1767. His brother John joined him later in the year, but died in Naples in the winter of 1768–69, probably of consumption. Sir James had contributed £150 to their expenses but this ran out very quickly and they had to seek further help from him, but also from the banker Robert Alexander.
Alexander Runciman rated his brother’s precocious talent more highly than his own and was at first content to develop his skills as a landscape painter, but after John’s death, inspired by Gavin Hamilton and encouraged by artist friends he made in Rome like James Barry, Henry Fuseil and Tobias Sergel, he developed ambitions to paint history pictures. His proposal for the decorative scheme for Penicuik House changed from what had at first been planned as a fairly conventional decoration of classical landscapes to the story of Achilles. When he returned to Scotland in the summer of 1771, however, excitement over the publication by James MacPherson of what were reputed to be translations of the Gaelic poetry of the ancient bard Ossian was at its height. Consequently, back in Scotland, Runciman changed his plan again, this time to the patriotic subject of the poetry of Ossian. Between July and September 1772, he painted the entire ceiling of the saloon in Penicuik House with scenes from Ossian, some seventeen compositions in all. He also painted the ceiling of one of the staircases in the house with four scenes from the life of St Margaret of Scotland.
Tragically, Penicuik House burnt down in 1899, but there are photographs and a detailed watercolour of Ossian’s Hall. There are also two written descriptions of the ceilings and a number of working drawings. Runciman also made vivid etchings of several of his compositions. Together all these various witnesses give us a good idea of what a dramatic creation the Hall of Ossian was. Indeed the nineteenth-century antiquarian David Laing christened the paintings ‘truly national designs.’ Vivid in colour, they were executed with an expressive freedom that was wholly original and which clearly echoed the vigour that contemporaries saw in Ossian’s poetry, supposing it reflected the energy and imaginative freedom that it was believed characterised the productions of the earliest history of human society, of the primitive in fact. In this Runciman’s painting was precociously modern. Then in 1774, two years after the Penicuik pictures and using what was evidently the same rapid and expressive technique, he painted the pictures in the apse of what is now St Patrick’s Church. The main painting there of the Ascension, currently concealed beneath layers of over-painting, is also similar in scale to the central painting at Penicuik.
In 1772, shortly after he completed the work at Penicuik, Runciman had been appointed master of the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh, ultimately the parent body of Edinburgh College of Art. Thus he was the first native-born teacher in a tradition that continues unbroken to the present day.
After his return from Rome, Runciman lived in what is now 19 West Nicholson Street. He continued to paint, carrying out decorative schemes in the Theatre Royal, established in 1769, and in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and elsewhere, though none of these survive. He was a founder member of the Cape Club. The members were all Knights of the Cape and, reflecting his fiery personality and perhaps, too, his colourful painting his sobriquet was Sir Brimstone. Originally formed around the theatre, the Cape was a Bohemian circle of actors, painters, poets and musicians. The members included his close friend the poet Robert Fergusson whose portrait he painted and who is, apocryphally and probably erroneously, said to have been the model for the Prodigal Son in the painting in St Patrick’s.
Runciman also exhibited several times at the Royal Academy in London and elsewhere, but his surviving easel paintings, of which there are examples in The National Gallery of Scotland, (there are also numerous drawings by him in the national collection) suggest that he was more constrained working on canvas than he evidently felt he could be on the bigger scale of his decorative schemes. His self-portrait with fellow artist John Brown in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery does, however, capture both his personal vitality and the way that it was reflected in his art. Runciman died in Edinburgh in November 1785 and is buried in the Canongate Churchyard. The grave is unmarked, but a stone plaque to the memory of both brothers, John and Alexander, was erected by the RSA in 1866 on the west-facing wall of the church.