St Patrick’s Church began as the Episcopalian, Cowgate Chapel which opened on 9th October 1774. The architect was Alexander Runciman’s close friend John Baxter. Uniting two congregations, the size of the building reflected the new status of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland. Although, by law, it could only be called a chapel, it had a bell to call the faithful. It also had an organ, at the time a radical innovation, and was to have had a grand portico onto the Cowgate. Even more remarkably, however, within the church, Alexander Runciman’s painting of the Ascension with its four supporting panels was nothing less than the first significant public religious art in Scotland since the Reformation.
Runciman’s paintings were in place when the church opened in 1774 and we do have his own account of them, though it is only summary. It is in a letter that he wrote in 1775 to his friend the antiquary, George Paton (the quotation below preserves Runciman’s spelling and punctuation):
“Mr. Runcimans compliments to Mr.Paton is sorry the dementions of the Picturs in the chaple is fallen out of the way, but AR can give a pretty near guess of the matter, viz. the large picture in the top of the niche is thriteen feet High and thrity broad at the bottom; the form is a semi-circle.
The subject painted in is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, Luke 24th cap.verse the 51 – 53 and he was taken up into heaven and they worshipped him. The figures are the twelve Apostles, and the three Maries, all the syze of life; the Figures nearest the eye are something larger below.
Above the two small windows are two pictures eight feet wide and five feet high. The picture on the right hand is Christ talking with the woman of Samaria at the well; on the left is the Prodigals return. The figures are large as life, but only half length. On each side are two ovalls, seven feet high and five feet wide. In that on the right hand is painted the Prophet Elias when he retired to the mountain; in that on the left hand is Moses with his Tables. The figures are something larger than the life, and are both sitting.
All l invented and executed by A.Runciman. The searching for the measure is the reason Mr.Paton did not get this sooner“.
From this, and other contemporary accounts, we know that the main painting which fills the half-dome of the apse represents the Ascension. Deemed unsuitable for the Presbyterian congregation which took over the church in 1818, however, it was painted out. Unfortunately we have no record of what it looked like. Nor does Runciman seem to have left any preparatory drawings, though as he apparently liked to improvise that is not really surprising. We do know however that any representation of the Ascension would normally include those described in the Gospel as witnessing it, the twelve Apostles, the three Maries and Christ himself, so the principal composition is likely to contain at least sixteen figures.
The four subsidiary paintings, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, the Return of the Prodigal Son, Moses, and Elijah, were not painted out and are still visible. The two prophets are appropriate supporters to the scene of the Ascension as they were present at the Transfiguration of Christ which in the New Testament prefigures it. The other two scenes, Christ and the Woman of Samaria and the Prodigal Son, seem to be thinly concealed propaganda for the resurgent Episcopalian Church in Scotland: the former representing Christ (or the Episcopalian church) among the heathen and the latter, Scotland as the Prodigal Son returning to the bosom of the true church. These subsidiary pictures are now obscured by dirt, but even so we can recognise in them the freedom of execution which characterises Runciman’s work. Cleaning will reveal their brilliance.
Runciman had served an apprenticeship in the Edinburgh firm of James Norie & Co. Indeed after the death of James Norie and subsequently his son Robert, until he left for Rome in 1767, Runciman ran the business on behalf of Helen Norie, Robert’s widow. At a time when art teaching was based primarily on drawing, he was therefore unusual in being a professional painter. Nor were the Nories just house-painters. A typical Norie decorative scheme always includes numerous, freely painted landscapes. It was not without reason, therefore, that Runciman’s friend, the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, writing from Rome described him as ‘the best painter among us here.’
Runciman spent four years in in the city. At the time, like Paris a century later, it was the buzzing centre of modern art. Led by the Scottish painter, Gavin Hamilton, doyen of the artists in the city, young artists, both painters and sculptors, were fired with new ideas about the primitive, the importance of spontaneity and the primacy of the imagination, all ideas that shaped the future of art.
Runciman’s skill as a painter equipped him to realise these new ideas in his art in a way that is very distinctive and two years before he painted the St Patrick’s, or Cowgate Chapel scheme, he had completed the grand, romantic scheme at Penicuk House that came to be called the Hall of Ossian. It was painted in a fury of creativity between July and October 1772. The St Patrick’s paintings are on the same scale. They were evidently also rapidly painted in the same way and in the same technique of oil onto white-primed plaster. Tragically, the Hall of Ossian which stood at the very beginning of the Romantic movement was destroyed in a fire in 1899.
We do however have pictures of it and in them we can see how it reflected what contemporaries saw in Ossian’s poetry. Hugh Blair, Ossian’s principal champion wrote, for instance: “Irregular and unpolished we may expect the production of uncultivated ages to be; but abounding at the same time, with that vehemence and fire which are the soul of poetry.” ‘Vehemence and fire’ were by all accounts manifest in Ossian’s Hall and had it survived, Runciman’s place in the early history of modern art would have already been secured. From the evidence we have we can see how it embodied for the first time qualities that much later came to be associated with modernity: spontaneity, imaginative expression enhanced by improvisation and immediacy of impact through glowing colour and free and rapid execution.
Nothing comparable by the artist was thought to survive until the discovery fifty years ago that the Ascension, always supposed to have been destroyed, did still exist under over-paint. There is every reason to suppose, and preliminary investigations do also confirm, that it reflects these same precociously modern ideas; that it shows the same ‘vehemence and fire’ that contemporaries saw in Runciman’s Ossian pictures. That is why the rediscovery of the painting is so important. If it can now be recovered and the whole scheme restored, it will give us back a work of art that has a central place in the evolution of modern art.
Reinstating the whole of the original decorative scheme so far as is possible, relighting it and providing interpretation will also celebrate and provide public access to a historic moment in the history of toleration in Scotland and of the nation’s churches.