Tragic story behind painting is revealed

Louise McEwan of the East Neuk Centre, Gavin Grant of Fife Cultural Trust, and Glenn Jones of the Anstruther and Kilrenny Burgh Collection, with the portrait of Thomas Black
Louise McEwan of the East Neuk Centre, Gavin Grant of Fife Cultural Trust, and Glenn Jones of the Anstruther and Kilrenny Burgh Collection, with the portrait of Thomas Black

An important painting with a poignant story behind it is now proudly back on display in Anstruther Town Hall.

It shows Thomas Black (1819-1864) who was a highly-respected surgeon in Anstruther.

Originally from the Wemyss area, he sailed to Greenland twice as a surgeon on whaling ships before setting up in his profession in the East Neuk burgh in 1839.

However, in the early hours of February 29, 1864, he died in terrible circumstances.

Gaslights used at the time were extinguished at 10pm and in the darkness Thomas, who was returning late the night before from visiting a patient in Pittenweem, fell into Anstruther Harbour, where he became stuck in the mud and drowned in the incoming tide.

Even more tragically, it was reported that his cries for help were heard for two hours, but it seems no one had been willing to go out in the darkness to investigate.

Such was the respect for Thomas Black, who left a widow and four children, that a monument was raised to him at his grave in the cemetery just across the road from where his portrait now hangs.

The portrait was painted posthumously by the renowned local artist Robert Fowler, who was born in Anstruther in 1853, but painted many of his works – landscapes, portraits and mythological scenes – while living in Liverpool.

Nearly 100 years after his death, his portraits of leading 19th century politicians William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, both former Prime Ministers, still hang in the Palace of Westminster, London.

The Anstruther painting required extensive conservation, which included being cleaned, having the canvas repaired and new glass installed to provide additional protection, before it could be displayed.

The conservation work was funded by the Anstruther and Kilrenny Burgh Collection, the Common Good Fund and Fife Cultural Trust.

Glenn Jones, vice chairman of the Anstruther and Kilrenny Burgh Collection, said: “It is important that this portrait of Thomas Black once again hangs in the town whose community he served and that his story is remembered.”

Gavin Grant, collections team leader of Fife Cultural Trust (ONFife), said: “I am very grateful to the staff of the East Neuk Centre and the Anstruther and Kilrenny Burgh Collection who alerted us to the need to conserve this work.

“Special thanks go to Glenn Jones for his part in the project and for researching the story of Thomas Black.”