Material-Technical Investigation of Alexander Runciman’s Murals

Project Outline

Alexander Runciman (1736-1785) was born in Edinburgh and trained there as a decorative painter apprenticed to Robert Norie. Between 1767 and 1771, Runciman spent four years in Rome. Returning fired by exciting new ideas, he decorated Ossian’s Hall in Penicuik House in 1772. On a ceiling 36x24ft, it was painted in little more than three months. It was a remarkably modern work but was later destroyed in a fire.

The Cowgate Chapel murals, painted the following year, are on the same scale and in the same technique of mixed media on plaster. Of unique importance as the first major religious paintings in Scotland since the Reformation, the main picture showed the ‘Ascension of Christ’. It was painted over in the early nineteenth century, but the scheme also incorporated four subsidiary paintings including the ‘Samaritan Woman at the Well’. These murals remained visible as well as elaborate secondary decoration.

This research into the making and meaning of both murals is of great significance and an important contribution to the recovery of the Ascension mural (ceiling). There were very few paintings on this scale in Britain in the eighteenth century and Runciman’s murals are among the most significant after the loss of Ossian’s Hall. The only comparable scheme is James Barry’s ‘Progress of Human Culture Guided by the Arts’ in the Royal Society of Arts. These projects are also linked as Barry and Runciman were close friends in Rome.

To gain detailed insight into these works, our project examines both the ‘Ascension of Christ’ and the ‘Samaritan Woman at the Well’ using a technical art history methodology (art historical enquiry, scientific analysis, art-technological source research). Scientific techniques applied include: technical photography (raking light, UV), infrared reflectography (IRR), preparation of a small number of paint x-sections for investigation with optical microscopy, UV fluorescence microscopy, fluorescent staining and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy-dispersive X-ray microanalysis (SEM-EDX). Results from these scientific examinations will be combined with stylistic analysis and thorough examination of photographs and other evidence of the mural itself and of available evidence of comparative works if these can be found.

TAHG Participants

Mark Richter

Wenbo Li and Danielle Nomura, two students on our MLitt in Technical Art History programme, are also conducting separate dissertation projects to study respectively the ‘Ascension of Christ’ and ‘Samaritan Woman at the Well’.

Useful Links

For more information, check out the blog articles by the Runciman Apse Trust.



This project is being carried out in collaboration with Teresa Keenan and Professor Duncan MacMillan at the Runciman Apse Trust.