An unwritten chapter in
the History of Old Edinburgh By David Fraser Harris, M.D., B.Sc.
course of the article on the dissolution as at April 1, 1907, of the
"Board of Trustees for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures in
Scotland," which appeared in the Scotsman of March 25, 1907, mention was
made of "Mr. Delacour, painter," the first teacher in the then newly
established "Drawing School," or School of Design. The activities of
this same William De la Cour (for thus he wrote his name) constitute
material for a chapter in the history of Old Edinburgh as yet unwritten;
it would contain much of interest to lovers of the "romantic town."
The date of the birth of De la Cour I have never discovered, but as he
is stated to he died of "old age" in 1767, and, as his age is not given,
if we suppose him to have been only seventy at the time of his death, he
must have been born about 1697. The earliest reference to him which I
have is of his having painted ad vivum the portrait of Sir Thomas de
Veil (one of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the City and
Liberty of Westminster, etc.), which was engraved by one "T. Ryley," and
"published according to Act of Parliament, June 1, 1747," and "sold by
De la Cour, Kathrine Street in ye Strand." This De Veil is none other
than the "austere magistrate" in Hogarth's picture a woman swearing her
child to a grave citizen. After this date we have his own words to the
effect that he painted scenery for "the theatre" at Newcastle and at
Glasgow. By 1757 he had settled in Edinburgh and painted a "new wood
scene" for "Douglas: A Tragedy" (Edinburgh Evening Courant, July 23,
"Douglas: A Tragedy," by the Rev. John Home, minister of the Church of
Scotland! What a flutter that caused in contemporary ecclesiastical
dovecots is well known to those versed in the annals of the old theatre
at Playhouse Close in the Canongate. The Edinburgh Evening Courant of
January 18, 1759, assures us that" the celebrated tragedy of the 'Orphan
of China,' by M. Voltaire, is now in rehearsal." "The whole appearance
of the stage will be entirely new . . . the scenery, dresses, and
decorations designed and painted for the occasion by Mons. De la Cour."
On the 23rd of the same month this play was given as a benefit for De la
Cour, and tickets were to be had "at Mr. De la Cour's house, head of
If stage scenery was all that was done by De la Cour, we might never
have known what manner of man he was as an artist; but it is far
otherwise. He has left seven large landscapes in distemper upon cloth on
the walls of the ballroom at Yester House, which he executed for the
fourth Marquis of Tweeddale; he signed and dated six of them "W. De la
From a study of the character of these we can ascertain that the same
hand painted between forty and fifty pictures, some on wooden panels,
some on plaster, at Caroline Park House, near Granton, for the second
Duke of Argyll, as well as four landscapes on the walls of the large
room in Lord Glenlee's Town House, Brown Square now the Dental Hospital,
Chambers Street the room which Mr. Martin Hardy has chosen for the
setting of his interesting group, "Burns reciting 'A Winter's Night' at
the Duchess of Gordon's, January, 1787." The De la Cours are quite
obvious in the prints of this picture. At old Craig House (now the
private part of Morningside Asylum) there are two undoubted De la Cours,
and at Drylaw House, Blackhall, three very fine examples of his best
work exist. In the Municipal Museum in the City Chambers, Edinburgh,
there are two panel pictures, one in dark, the other in light tones,
taken from houses in Old Edinburgh, while in a house in Chessel's Court,
Canongate, there is a painting by De la Cour on a panel over a
fireplace; it has suffered much from neglect. There are two signed
portraits of ladies at ennoxlove, Haddington, and two landscapes,
originally at Caroline Park, are now at Dalkeith House, whither they
were removed by the Jate Duke of Buccleuch. Both are on wood, and are a
cold grey in treatment; one of them, a long rectangular panel, is
particularly interesting in that it represents the city of Edinburgh
before the "Nor' Loch" was drained, and when as yet there were no
buildings, save one farm-house, on the site of Princes Street, George
Street, or Queen Street.
De la Cour rarely depicted local scenery; with the exception of the
above, and two
river scenes, something like the Firth of Forth (one at Dalkeith, the
other in the city museum), and a castle like that of Merchiston at Craig
House, his subjects were all of foreign origin. His inspiration was all
drawn from some sunny, mountainous land of ivyclad ruins, broken arches,
mossy gateways, towers, baths, amphitheatres, the vegetation covered
relics of the Roman Empire.
He had a grudge against Scotland at any rate, against the theatrical
managers in the Canongate, for their having underpaid him for scenery
painting. In the Edinburgh Evening Courant for March 5, 1763, he takes
us into his confidence, and explains that the report has been spread
abroad that he is "too dear." To justify himself, he tells us he got
seven guineas for 15 square feet of "front scenes" ("towns, chambers,
forests"), and one guinea "for the wings"; that he was paid by benefits,
any surplus being retained by the managers: he therefore thanks the
public, and not the managers, for what he has contrived to get hold of
in the way of payment. "Last year," he says, "for instance, they gave me
Monday, February 1st, as this was a fast day of the Church of England."
He painted scenery for the "Tempest," "Twelfth Night," the "Dragon of
Wantley," and for a number of comedies and farces now known only to the
curious in matters theatrical.
The announcement of his appointment to the School of Design is thus
given in the
Edinburgh Evening Courant for July 12 and 14, 1760:
"The commissioners and trustees for improving Fisheries and Manufactures
in Scotland do hereby advertise that by an agreement with Mr. De la Cour,
painter, he has opened a school in this city for persons of both sexes
that shall be presented to him by the trustees, when he is to teach
gratis the Art of Drawing for the use of manufactures, especially the
drawing of patterns for the linen and woollen manufactures; and at the
end of the year some prizes are to be distributed among the scholars.
All persons who incline to be taught by him are desired to apply to the
trustees' secretary, with whom they will lodge certificates in their
favour or recommendations from persons of character, and specimens of
their drawings if they have already done anything in that way. As only a
certain number can be admitted at one time, they who intend to take the
benefit of this appointment must not make any delay in lodging their
applications. Mr. De la Cour is likewise to teach the art of drawing to
all persons that chose to attend his school at one guinea per quarter.
He has a room for girls of rank apart from his public school. By order
of the commissioners and trustees,
"Da. Flint, Secretary."
De la Cour held this post for seven years, for he died in 1767, and was
buried in the Greyfriars Churchyard amongst so many more notable in the
story of Old Edinburgh. The entry could not be more meagre: "Mr. De la
Cour. Painter. L. French ground. Old Age." Needless to say no stone
to-day marks the spot; the poor French painter is not, however, alone in
that, since the same might have been said until quite recently of the
great native humanist George Buchanan, buried in the same place.
In the Caledonian Mercury of March 14, 1767, the creditors of the lately
deceased Mr. De la Cour are requested to lodge their claims. He seems to
have left a widow, for the Edinburgh Evening Courant of April 8, 1767,
announces "an assembly for the benefit of Mrs. De la Cour: tickets 2s.
6d. each at Mr. Picque's house, Skinner's Close, and at Balfour's
In the same newspaper of April 25 and 30 there is a long notice of a
sale by auction, in the room below Balfour's Coffee-House, of paintings,
drawings, prints and sketches which belonged to "the deceased Mr. De la
Cour, Painter, also blocks for grinding colours, pencils, drawing tables
and other utensils and materials."
De la Cour is represented in our National Portrait Gallery by only one
small drawing in red chalk (148), the head of an artist, John Brown, one
of the pupils at the School of Design. In the short note on De la Cour
in the catalogue to the Gallery it is stated that there are two
portraits by him of Sir Stuart Thriepland at Fingask Castle; also that
he painted a portrait of the Lady Elizabeth Jane Leslie, daughter of the
tenth Earl of Rothes.
The pictures at Milton House in the Canongate are in this notice, on the
authority of the late Mr. Patrick Gibson, S.A., attributed to De la Cour.
I have seen these; I do not think they are by his hand. The late Mr.
Thomas Bonnar, architect, told me that he believed they were by
Francesco Zuccherelli (1702-1788), a Florentine artist, also represented
at Yester House by one small oil painting on the staircase.
Certain paintings on wooden panels in Old Edinburgh houses were done by
members of the family of Norie, the first of whom, "Old Norie," began
life as a coachpainter. Very few of these now survive, but there is a
genuine example of the Nories' work at Salisbury Green. De la Cour was
strong in foliage, the Nories not so from the examples I have been able
to examine, but their respective paintings are often confused.
De la Cour when painting on the plaster of walls sometimes furnished his
landscapes with painted frames, which, although done, of course, on the
flat, give a clever appearance of imitating a spirally carved wooden
pictureframe. The landscapes in Chambers Street and certain paintings at
Caroline Park are good examples of this. With such frames he furnished
the coats of arms of the Argyll family, in which we can still see
excellently preserved the ship of Lome, the boar's head, the
Neobliviscaris and the Vix ea nostra voco of that ducal house. They
remain to remind us of Caroline Park having been acquired from its
builder, the first Earl of Cromarty, of Union fame, in 1742, and later
decorated for the second Duke of Argyll and Greenwich.
De la Cour's subjects are pleasing landscapes in the manner of Claude
Lorraine; he is very fond of waterfalls, boulders in streams, cliffs
with ruined castles perched on them, and men fishing in the quiet pools
below. His foliage is very skilfully treated, and he is particularly
successful in weird effects trees blown to one side by the breeze, or
even blasted as by lightning, are prominent features in the foreground.
His light and shade is good, as also his perspective; but his clouds are
crude, and his human figures very roughly sketched. His panels are by no
means decorated boards; he was far more than "a decorator of interiors,"
as he has sometimes been described. There is high probability that
before coming to England he had studied in Rome; there is a panel at
Caroline Park which is said to be a faithful reproduction of the Arch of
Titus, and one of the pictures of large ruins at Yester House forcibly
recalls the Baths of Caracalla. The Colosseum occurs as a subject more
than once, and he has several Roman aqueducts and ruined gates.
William De la Cour was an artist, if now an almost completely forgotten
one. Certainly here and there his use of colour was peculiar, as the
following conversation, reported by John Rimsay of Ochtertyre in his
"Scotland and Scotsmen of the eighteenth century" shows: "On coming to
drink tea in the dining-room after their bottle, Mr. Dundas, looking at
the paintings, said: 'Oh Tom, what's this? green cow, red sheep, blue
goats. Damned ridiculous!' The other, who was then Lord Advocate or
Justice Clerk, answered with great humility: 'My Lord, not understanding
these things myself, I left it to Mr. De la Cour, who I thought was a
man of taste and knowledge in the fine arts.'
"Probably the last allusion to him is in the Edinburgh Evening Courant
of March 22, 1769, which runs thus:
"Drawing School Trustees' Office,
"March 21, 1769.
"The trustees for Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements advertise
that the Drawing School in Edinburgh which has been broke up since the
death of Mr. De la Cour is to be opened again on Monday next the 27th
current under the direction of Mr. Charles Pavilion, painter, from the
Royal Academy of Paris."
So De la Cour was succeeded by a fellow countryman.
And thus the old French painter passes from Old Edinburgh annals,
making, ere he does so, one more unlettered grave in green Greyfriars.
But he is known to a few; and for one at least, whose earliest memories
are of his dark cascades and sunlit trees, he has left "the touch of the