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Celebrated yet unknown to many: The enigmatic life of north-east artist Kenny Duffus

The family of the Carron painter and sculptor pay tribute to the man who caught the attention of the Royal Academy of Arts yet lived largely as a recluse.

Kenneth Duffus, Aberdeen art graduate who eluded the public eye despite his impressive talent.
Kenneth Duffus, Aberdeen art graduate who eluded the public eye despite his impressive talent.

He was perhaps one of Scotland’s most talented artists, but like his paintings – often in watercolour and ink and not the more respected oils of his peers – Aberdeen graduate Kenny Duffus didn’t live, or look like, an artist whose work earned the highest esteem of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Instead, growing old in his own particular style, he was as happy sleeping in his hut in his friend’s garden or pottering around his Carron home just as he was touring Europe on the travel scholarship of his youth, with an easel and brushes strapped to his back.

A year on from his death his cousin Colin Thomson has paid tribute to the man he says “enriched the lives of all who knew him.” A book cataloguing Kenny’s life, and vast works, is also in the making.

Talent upon talent

Kenneth Thomson Duffus was born on October 26 1934.

Son of Lottie Thomson of Northburn Farm, Cuminestown, who married First World war veteran Herbert Duffus, Kenny had one older brother, Stanley.

A young Kenny Duffus in short trousers pictured in the doorway of his home with his elder brother and dad in suits, and mother - holding a cat - in the background.
Kenny Duffus, left, with his parents and older brother.

Despite showing enormous promise in distance running, a sport his father hoped he’d pursue onto the international stage, Kenny chose to invest in some of his other many talents.

A textbook savant, he had an innate command of foreign languages, speaking fluent Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. Passable in Norwegian he was chagrined with his ineptitude, especially as a lifelong Scottish Nationalist, when it came to “the Gaelic.”

A born artist

From a young age though it was clear Kenny, at his core, was an artist.

After school he enrolled at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, where he formed a lifelong friendship with fellow student Elspeth Haston, daughter of renowned Scottish artist Mary McMurtie.

An early work of Kenny’s capturing a street in Fittie. Image courtesy of Colin Thomson.

Their bond – and her home and gardens at Milltimber – would become an anchor in Kenny’s life. Over the years he would travel back and forth from the north-east of Scotland always finding a place to lay his head, and find kinship and care with Elspeth and her family.

At Gray’s Kenny’s preferred medium of pastels, watercolour and ink gained local acceptance and recognition. Depictions of iconic buildings such as St Machar Cathedral are among his vast portfolio.

Highly detailed watercolour and ink rendering of St Machar Cathedral by Kenneth Duffus. Image courtesy of Colin Thomson.

He perhaps owed the lack of attention offered to his work by the wider art world to his rejection of classic mediums such as oils and gouache.

Sculpting commission

Sculpting also entered Kenny’s his repertoire to the delight of his aunt Nancy in London. She commissioned him to create a bust of a child.

“I was only six years old when I was drafted in to sit for my elder cousin. That was 69 years ago,” said Colin Thomson, who now resides in Orkney. “I knew it then, and have never lost this belief, that my cousin Kenny was a special man.

Kenny’s younger cousin Colin holding an image of the bust Kenny sculpted of him as a child.

“He was in every way what you’d call quirky. He never liked to be touched, and how he lived was how he lived. No frills, no conformity to modern life as you and I would know it. He just happily inhabited his own world where he created wondrous and beautiful things.

“My wife and I loved Kenny. And he deserves every piece of recognition he will get if a book – or article – is published in his memory.”

Barlinnie Bill and the ‘Beggar Man’

His impressive body of work earned him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He studied there from December 12 1956 to December 1960 during which time he was endowed with one of the institute’s highest awards, the Gold Medal for sculpture.

Creating a plaster sculpture of a man begging on the streets of London, Kenny crafted the piece with the man holding out a bowl to collect money from passers by. Seeing an opportunity to cash in on Kenny’s talent, his muse refused to sit for his final session without an extra payment. Kenny paid and the final piece won the 1956 prize.

Graduate Kenneth Duffus who studied at Gray’s School of Art Aberdeen.

For many decades it graced his parents drawing room before Kenny took it back to his flat in Aberdeen. It was only when he asked a neighbour, the infamously named “Barlinnie Bill” to look after it that the “Beggar Man” met his demise. Not realising the value, or fragility of the work, it was placed in Bill’s garden where it perished.

A piece of Aberdeen’s history

A more enduring reminder of Kenny’s legacy in Aberdeen is the foundation stone of Robert Gordon Technical College which he was commissioned to create when land was donated for the creation of the facility by T Scott Sutherland FRBA.

Kenny Duffus with the Robert Gordon’s Technical College stone he crafted at the institute’s official inception.

A further scholarship from the Royal Academy would see Kenny travel all over Europe creating artworks in harbours and piazzas throughout the continent.

A painting by Kenneth Duffus, believed to be in Bandol, France. Image courtesy of Colin Thomson.

Home from home

During the 60s and 70s – and for many years after – he would regularly return to his second home at Milltimber, with Elspeth and her family. Inheriting his father’s green fingers he enjoyed tending his own flower and vegetable patch there, and sketching her seven children at play.

Kenny in the garden he loved so much in the Haston home, Milltimber. Image courtesy of Neil Haston.

Elspeth’s son Neil is now compiling a catalogue of Kenny’s works for a book to be released this year.

“I have such fond memories of Kenny. He was the warmest, loveliest man. It would be such a shame if his vast body of work was to be forgotten. I’ve begun the process of bringing it all together and my mother will pen a foreword.”

‘We loved him’

Ever the wanderer Kenny loved to roam the Speyside hills. A man of “supreme fitness”, whose bike saddle was never worn down because “he pedalled standing up everywhere he went”, even in his older years he was able to plod through snow with the vigour of a man many years his junior.

With the help of Colin’s wife Lynn, Kenny purchased his home in Carron near Aberlour 20 years ago. Then, supported by the kindly and caring Carron community he was able to remain at home, in latter years as his sight failed.

Kenny, centre, with friends in France.

Colin added: “I feel very grateful to all those who could see beyond the ageing man in a repeatedly patched up jacket, back to the handsome man who graduated from Gray’s.

“To those who understood Kenny as a kind of nomadic artist who once disappeared for a period of years only to return surprised there was any concern for his welfare. He was perplexed his confession of being a clandestine translator for the American Government in a Spanish prison would be of any interest!

“I just loved him.”

Proud of Kenny

Kenny, who never married, passed away on January 20 last year age 88. His ashes were scattered in the Speyside Hills.

Lynn Thomson added: “In Kenny there was a man who wasn’t hindered by the trappings of modern life. He was content, which is not something everyone achieves.

An incomplete painting by Kenny Duffus of the Brig O’Balgownie, Aberdeen. Image courtesy of Colin Thomson.

“He was brilliant, and funny, and a son of this corner of Scotland. I feel proud to have known him. We hope others will share in this pride through remembering him and his work today.”