Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Swan, John Macallan
SWAN, JOHN MACALLAN (1847–1910), painter and sculptor, was the son of Robert Wemyss Swan, a civil engineer, by his wife Elisabeth MacAllan. He was born at Old Brentford on 9 Dec. 1847, both parents being Scots. Swan began his study of art in the schools at Worcester and Lambeth and in those of the Royal Academy. He afterwards worked in Paris, under Gérôme and Frémiet. His chief school after his return to London was the Zoological Gardens, where his friends were almost as likely to find him as in his own house.
In 1878 he began to exhibit, sending pictures to both the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery. At first he confined himself to animals, but he soon began to introduce the human figure, choosing subjects of a more or less idyllic character, which lent themselves to the use of the nude. Commencing chiefly as a painter, he gradually devoted himself more and more to modelling, until at last he divided his time pretty equally between the two forms of art. Among his best, and best-known, pictures are 'The Prodigal Son' (bought for the Chan trey bequest in 1888) in the Tate Gallery; 'Maternity' (a lioness suckling her cubs) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; 'A Lioness defending her Cubs' in Mr. J. C. Williams's collection; and 'Leopards' in the Bradford gallery.
Among his works in sculpture the following may be named: 'The Walking Leopard' at Manchester; 'Orpheus,' in silver, in Mrs. Joseph's collection; a larger and slightly different group of the same in bronze in Mrs. Coutts Michie's collection; 'Indian Leopard and Tortoise,' silver, in Mr. Ernest Sichel's collection, and the same in bronze in Mrs. Swan's possession; 'Leopard running' in Lady Shand's collection; a bronze bust of Cecil Rhodes [q. v. Suppl. II] and the eight colossal lions for Rhodes's monument at Groote Schuur, Capetown; and a ’Lioness drinking' in the Luxembourg.
Swan was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1894, and a full member in 1905. He was elected a member of the Royal Water Colour Society in 1899. He was also an hon. LL.D. of Aberdeen. He was one of the few English artists who won a wide acceptance abroad at the outset of their career. In 1885 he became a member of the Dutch Water Colour society. He won a silver medal at Paris in 1889, a gold medal at Munich in 1893, the grand medal at Munich in 1897, two gold medals at the Chicago World's Fair, and three gold medals at the Paris exhibition of 1900. He was a member of the 'Secessions' of Vienna and Munich, and in 1911, after his death, his work was awarded a memorial gold medal at Barcelona.
Swan early gained a reputation among the more discriminating collectors in this country, and from about 1880 until the time of his death the only things which debarred him from a wide popularity were his own fastidiousness and consequent slowness of production. Few artists have lavished so much care on their work before allowing it to leave their studios. Consequently he left a vast number of unfinished pictures and works of sculpture, as well as preparatory drawings. His studies, of which a special exhibition was held by the Fine Art Society in 1897, are among the finest ever made; a special fund was raised after his death, chiefly through the exertions of Mr. J. C. Drucker, to acquire as many as possible for the nation, so that the British Museum, the National Galleries of England. Scotland, and Ireland, the Guildhall Gallery, and many provincial museums are rich in his drawings. These are characterised by an almost unrivalled combination of artistic with scientific qualities. Even in his most fragmentary studies the structure and movement of his favourite models, the great cats, are at once given with extraordinary truth and vivacity and organised into aesthetic unity. As a painter his chief qualities were a touch of poetry in his imagination; good, sometimes fine, colour, which was in a key of his own; tone; and great power of modelling.
Swan died in London on 14 Feb. 1910, He married in 1884 Mary, eldest daughter of Hamilton Rankin of Camdonagh, co. Donegal, by whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. The latter follows her father's profession. Swan's appearance was remarkable. He was tall, dark, and burly, with a large head, like a Roman emperor's. His best portraits are a bust by Sir William Goscombe John, R.A., a bronze relief by H. Pegram, A.R.A., and paintings by Mr. McClure Hamilton and Mrs. Swan. He figures in Herkomer's 'Council of the Royal Academy' (1907) at the Tate Gallery.
Swan was the author of a 'Treatise on Metal Work,' read before the R.I.B.A. in 1906, and of papers on technical artistic questions, some of which were printed is the ’Proceedings of the Japanese Society.’
A memorial exhibition of his works, nearly a hundred items, was held at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1911.
[Personal knowledge and private information ; Drawings of J. M. Swan, by A. L.