Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

William de la Cour
Painter, Engraver, and Teacher of Drawing

An unwritten chapter in the History of Old Edinburgh By David Fraser Harris, M.D., B.Sc. (London).

IN the 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, 1757).

"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 Toderick's Wynd."

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 Cour, 1761."

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 Coffee-House."

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 vanished hand."

The University,
St. Andrews.

Return to our Online Books page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus