Philanthropist, tycoon and great Scot: James Duncan's time has come again

THE remarkable life and achievements of a forgotten Scottish philanthropist are to be recognised in a major exhibition more than 120 years after his death.

Sugar magnate and polymath James Duncan was a key figure of Victorian Scotland and owned the Benmore estate near Dunoon, Argyll, which is now run by Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE).

As a young man, he devised a unique method of refining sugar that made him one of the wealthiest industrialists of the age. He built a vast gallery to house his art collection at Benmore but his paintings are now housed in some of world's greatest museums such as the Louvre, the Belvedere in Vienna, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is home to four of Duncan's pictures, including Renoir's The Bay of Naples, which Duncan acquired in 1883, making him the first Scottish collector to buy an Impressionist painting.

Duncan shaped the landscape of Benmore and was also one of the most committed philanthropists of his time, giving 20 per cent of his annual 100,000 salary to a range of causes.

But his extraordinary commercial achievements and significant contribution to the sciences and the arts have been largely unacknowledged.

His legacy vanished after his fortune declined as a result of an economic downturn in the sugar trade, forcing him to sell his art collection and his estate.

The exhibition, James Duncan of Benmore: an Enlightened Victorian will open on Sunday and run until 22 May.

Benmore curator Peter Baxter said: "Duncan shaped the landscape of Benmore, planting over six million trees during his time there. He commissioned features such as the Golden Gates - shown at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878 - as well as building a fernery and the largest greenhouses in Scotland. Duncan also employed his significant wealth in helping the poor.

"Now, for the first time, we see him recognised as an important scientist, innovator, philanthropist and collector; a Scot of great industry and energy whom history has forgotten until now."

Art historian Dr Andrew M Watson, on whose research the exhibition is based, said he first came across Duncan while researching Victorian collectors of French art. He was particularly intrigued when Duncan's name appeared in connection with Eugene Delacroix's masterpiece The Death of Sardanapalus.

Dr Watson said: "He seemed to be one of the most important entrepreneurs and collectors of the late 19th century, a major figure who was forgotten in his own lifetime. Despite his many achievements and contributions, few have heard of James Duncan."