About this artwork

In 1767 John Runciman and his brother Alexander travelled to Rome. There they joined an international group of artists associated with Henri Fuseli (1741–1825). Many of the artists in this circle were interested in dramatic, fantastic subjects that afforded them a new freedom in their work. Subjects stemmed from poetry, literature, and particularly the theatrical works of Shakespeare. John was an accomplished draughtsman and etcher, and in Rome his work became more vibrant and expressive in style. In this rapidly executed sketch, the brown wash on the paper is highlighted with light gouache, giving the figures an eerie and supernatural appearance. Previously catalogued as ‘Three Satyrs’, it is now believed that they are the three witches from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.

John Runciman

John Runciman

The innovative subjects and powerful compositions of John Runciman's work made a major contribution to the development of Scottish painting. John and his older brother, Alexander, were accomplished painters and etchers, based in Edinburgh and then Rome. John died of consumption in Naples within a year of his arrival in Italy. It seems he had a difficult time there, and having become deeply troubled, destroyed many of his paintings. Unusually among his contemporaries, he looked to the works of Rubens and Dürer for inspiration, especially when interpreting themes from the New Testament and Shakespeare.