Lady Duncan of Jordanstone

THE death of Lady Duncan of Jordanstone severed the link between the family and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (and now, also, of Design) which goes back to 1909. That was when James Duncan of Jordanstone left £60,000 to found a School of Industrial Art in Dundee.

Unusually, he stipulated that the money should also be used for a women’s institute "in which instruction could be given in such subjects as household thrift and management, cookery, laundrywork, dresscutting and needlework, insofar as the teaching of such subjects has not otherwise been efficiently provided for in Dundee". James Duncan had very progressive ideas about education.

When I talked to Lady Duncan in the early 1990s about the history of the college, she gleefully told me how a local farmer had sent two of his sons to Bolivia to seek their fortunes in the middle of the 19th century and how one of them, James, on hearing that the Jordanstone estate, just north of Meigle, was up for sale, instructed Dundee solicitors to buy it, no matter the cost.

When he returned to Dundee, the solicitors did not believe that he could afford to complete the deal, so he threw the money on to the floor and told them to pick it up. He then commissioned Sir Robert Lorimer to remodel the mansion house and, on his death, left the bequest to the college. But, in fact, it was not until 1953 that the money finally went towards building the college at Perth Road, Dundee.

Lady Duncan loved telling stories, including the one about her own connection with the Duncans of Jordanstone. Born Beatrice Carroll into a family that owned land in County Cork, and having in her childhood witnessed the family home being burned down during the Troubles of the 1920s, she had a conventional schooling before joining the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at a time when Lady Gregory was the patron of WB Yeats and Tyrone Guthrie trod the boards.

In 1934, Beatrice married Philip Blair Oliphant and, finding herself in Manchester, joined the BBC and acted in a number of radio plays. Her most famous (and surprising) part was as Larry the Lamb in Toytown, a wonderful children’s series that began before the Second World War and continued until the 1950s. Those were the days when there was a Children’s Hour on the Home Service and a presenter called Uncle Mac (who played the narrator in the Toytown series).

After the war, Beatrice and her husband returned to his seat, Ardblair Castle in Perthshire, where she took part in local dramatics, talks and panels, and encouraged drama in local schools. Philip died in 1963.

Then, three years later, she told me, while she was sitting alone in the castle, she saw the lights of Jordanstone, where her old friend the widower Sir James Duncan of Jordanstone (great nephew of the original James and the one and only baronet) was also sitting alone in his mansion house. What a waste of electricity, she thought. So she said that she rang Sir James and joked that they should live together to save money.

Three years later, they were living together after deciding to get married. (As I said, Lady Duncan loved telling stories. She may well have worried about electricity bills, but by no stretch of the imagination could she see the lights of Jordanstone from Ardblair Castle!)

Sir James died in 1974 and thereafter Lady Duncan concentrated on charity work, being involved with a number of good causes, including the Sir James Duncan Medal Trust which recognises members of the public who have given outstanding assistance to the police, and the Tenovus medical charity.

In 1994, just before Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design became a faculty of Dundee University, the college awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Sadly, in the last years of her life, Lady Duncan’s health deteriorated. My last meeting with her was in 1992 when my wife and I took her to a fancy dress ball organised by Henny King and her late husband, the artist and showman Edmund Caswell, at Duntrune House, just outside Dundee. Lady Duncan was dressed as a medieval lady and, because of her presence, we all got a mention in the Sunday Times.

I still remember her as someone whose personality was much bigger than her stature.

Lady Duncan is survived by a son and a daughter from her first marriage.