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Significant Scots
John Brown

BROWN, JOHN, an ingenious artist, was the son of Samuel Brown, goldsmith and watch-maker at Edinburgh, where he was born in 1752. He received an excellent education, after the fashion of Scotland, and was early destined to take up the profession of a painter. Having formed a school friendship of no ordinary warmth with Mr David Erskine, son of Thomas Erskine of Cambo, he travelled with that young gentleman in 1774, into Italy, where he was kindly received by Charles Erskine of the Rota, an eminent lawyer and prelate, the cousin of his companion. He immediately attached himself to the Academy, with a resolution to devote himself entirely to the arts. During the course of ten years’ residence in Italy, the pencil and crayon were ever in his hand, and the sublime thoughts of Raphael and Michael Angelo ever in his imagination. By continual practice, he obtained an elegance and correctness of contour, never equaled by any British artist; but he unfortunately neglected the mechanism of the pallet till his taste was so refined, that Titian, and Marillo, and Corregio, made his heart sink within him whenever he touched the canvas. When he attempted to lay in his colours, the admirable correctness of his contour was lost, and he had never self-sufficiency to persevere till it should be recovered in that tender evanescent outline which is so difficult to be attained even by the most eminent painters. He wished every thing important to be made out, and when it was made out, he found his work hard and disagreeable, like the first pictures painted by Raphael, and by all that preceded that wonderful artist. Brown, besides his genius for painting, possessed a high taste for music. His evenings in Italy were spent at the opera, and he penetrated deeply into the study of music as a science.

At Rome Brown met with Sir William Young and Mr. Townley, who, pleased with some of his pen and ink sketches, engaged him to accompany them to Sicily as a draughtsman. Of the antiquities of this island, he took several very fine views in pen and ink, exquisitely finished, yet still preserving the character and spirit of the buildings he intended to represent.

It was the belief of one of Brown’s Scottish patrons, that if he had gone to Berlin, he would have obtained the favour of Frederick the Great, on account of his extraordinary talents and refined personal character. A pious regard, however, for his parents, induced him to return to his native city, where, though universally beloved and admired, he found no proper field for the exertion of his abilities. Amongst the few persons of taste who afforded him their patronage was Lord Monboddo, who, with that liberality by which he was distinguished, gave him a general invitation to his elegant and convivial table, and employed him in making several pencil-drawings. He was also employed to draw pencil. heads of fifty of the more distinguished members of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, then just established; of which he finished about twenty. Among other works which he produced at Edinburgh, were heads of Dr. Blair, Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield, Runciman, his friend and brother artist, Drs. Cullen and Black, all of which were done in the most happy and characteristic manner. His talent in this line is described as having been very great. Amidst the collection which he had brought home to Edinburgh, was a portrait of time celebrated Piranese, who, being unable to sit two moments in one posture, reduced his painter to the necessity of shooting him flying like a bat or snipe. This vara avis was brought down by Brown at the first shot.

In 1786 Brown was induced to remove to London in order to prosecute, on a larger field, his profession as a portrait-draughtsman in black lead. He was here occasionally employed by Mr. Townley in drawing from his collection of Greek statues, a branch of art in which Brown is allowed to have greatly excelled. After some time spent in unremitting application, his health gave way, and he was recommended to try the benefit of a visit to his native country, by sea. On his passage from London to Leith, he was somehow neglected as he lay sick in his hammock, and, on his arrival, he was found at the point of death. With much difficulty he was brought up to town, and laid on the bed of his friend Runciman, who had died not long before in the same place. Here he expired, September 5, 1787, having only attained the age of thirty-five.

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