[This in an excerpt from chapter eight of Victorian Dundee, edited by C. A. Whatley, B. Harris and L. Miskell, (Dundee University Press, 2011) ISBN: 9781845860912. It first appeared (in closely related form) in the first edition of that book published in 2000 by Tuckwell Press, ISBN 186232171 X. For more on this see my book Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), in particular chapter four,’Patrick Geddes, D’Arcy Thompson and the Early Years of University College Dundee’ and chapter eleven ‘Ecological Research in Dundee.’]
The Patron, the Professor and the Painter: cultural activity in Dundee at the close of the nineteenth century
An awareness of the industrial and economic strengths of Dundee has tended to obscure the consideration of the artistic and academic life of the city. The purpose of this chapter is to give a sense of such activity as it flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In order to do this I will give specific consideration to the artistic and intellectual activities of three figures whose careers were interlinked, James Martin White, Patrick Geddes and John Duncan. White was the inheritor of industrial wealth and an imaginative and informed patron both in his home city of Dundee and, subsequently, in London. Patrick Geddes was a remarkable polymath – among other things a pioneer of ecologically and culturally-based town planning – who, thanks to White’s financial support, was appointed professor of botany at University College, Dundee, in the early years of that institution. John Duncan, born and trained in Dundee, was the leading artist of the Celtic revival in Scotland. He was, during the period in question, a close colleague of Geddes, whose thinking had a profound influence on the direction of his work. He numbered both White and Geddes among his patrons.
On 9 February 1881, the textile-mill manager Peter Carmichael (of Baxter Brothers) attended a meeting of the Dundee Naturalists’ Society. This society had been founded in 18742 and it quickly built up a membership which included as associates not only Peter Carmichael, but his fellow industrialists James Guthrie Orchar and James Farquhar White.3 Speakers to the society addressed a range of topics from those of local geographical interest to explorations of developing technologies. The subject of the meeting of 9 February falls into the latter category; it was an exhibition of Swan’s increasingly successful experiments to establish practical electric lighting. This had been a matter of keen interest in Dundee since 1835, the year in which James Bowman Lindsay’s demonstration of sustained electric light had been reported in the Dundee Advertiser.
It must be stressed here that the 1880s was a decade in which there was an almost tangible shift in the view of electricity as a matter of research interest, to the consideration of it as a practical form of domestic and industrial power. Revealing here are the contrasting treatments of the subject in different editions of the Encylopaedia Britannica. In 1879 George Chrystal’s article on ‘Electricity’ was published in volume VIII of the ninth edition. Chrystal was professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh working in the wake of James Clerk Maxwell’s insights. (Maxwell had himself been science editor of the same edition and died in the very year Chrystal’s article was published.) For Chrystal the issue was still the theory of electro-magnetism, not its practical application. By the time the equivalent volume of the next fully re-edited edition of the Britannica (the eleventh) was published in 1910, the emphasis had changed, and an entire article was devoted to ‘Electricity Supply’. The author of the ‘commercial aspects’ section of the article5 provides a context for the activities in Dundee in 1881. He writes: ‘Edison’s British master-patent was only filed in Great Britain in November 1879. In 1881 and 1882 electrical exhibitions were held in Paris and at the Crystal Palace, London, where the improved electric incandescent lamp was brought before the general public. In 1882 parliament passed the first Electric Lighting Act.’
The Dundee Naturalists’ Society thus played a significant role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge. In a letter of 10 February 1881 Carmichael noted that ‘on the whole it seems as if one difficulty after another is being conquered’. He went on to mention that ‘Mr White who purchased the Balruddery property lately is extending the mansion house and has arranged to light it with Swan. The motion is to be got from water power driving a turbine wheel’. The ‘Mr White’ to whom Carmichael referred was James Farquhar White, father of James Martin White. It is likely that both father and son attended the Naturalists’ Society meeting along with Carmichael. As has been noted White, senior, was, like Carmichael, an associate of the Society. His son Martin White (as he is normally known) was by this time a member of the council of the Society. Later in the same year, on 30 November, the society heard the latter’s account of the state of the art demonstrations given at the Paris Electrical Exhibition. His talk was entitled ‘Notes on the Paris Electrical Exhibition – with experiments’ and this subject gives insight into his character as an active amateur, well aware of contemporary scientific advances.
Further evidence of the forward-looking nature of the Society is clear from a lecture given only a month later. On 27 December 1881 an extra meeting of the Dundee Naturalists’ Society was held on the subject of ‘The Classification of Statistics’. The lecturer was Patrick Geddes, twenty-seven years old at the time and demonstrator in botany at the University of Edinburgh. From a modern viewpoint his topic might seem somewhat dry and specialist for a generalist body with a significant lay membership, such as the Dundee Naturalists’ Society. But in the 1880s the nature and use of statistics and their wider implications for the structure of the social sciences were matters of intense debate, not least with respect to their potential for providing the scientific foundation for the nascent discipline of sociology. Geddes’s talk was based on a three-part presentation he had made to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, earlier in the year. In his own words ‘it was probably the first [paper] which has attempted to organise the whole body of our recorded social knowledge into a form presentable to the cultivators of the preliminary sciences’. The ideas that Geddes discussed at that meeting were to have a major influence not only on his own eventual career path, but on the direction of Martin White’s patronage, for White was to become a key source of finance for the development of sociology in the United Kingdom. Indeed Philip Abrams in his classic account, The Origins of British Sociology, notes that White’s ‘interest in sociology was largely formed by his early friendship with Geddes’. That early friendship, forged in Dundee, led some thirty years later to White endowing both of the first two chairs of sociology at the University of London.
For more on this see my book Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), in particular chapter 4 ‘Patrick Geddes, D’Arcy Thompson and the Early Years of University College Dundee’ and chapter 11 ‘Ecological Research in Dundee.’