Destined for the Church, John Thomson attended Glasgow University in 1791–2, transferring from 1793 to 1797 to Edinburgh. In 1797 he took drawing lessons from Alexander Nasmyth. He was ordained in 1800 and succeeded his father the same year as minister of Dailly. Thanks to Walter Scott, a close friend and important influence on his work, he was transferred to Duddingston in 1805. Influenced by the landscape backgrounds of Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Turner and Henry Raeburn, he developed a broad Romantic style. His preferred subjects were landscapes and deserted Scottish castles; for example Fast Castle from Below, St Abb’s Head in the Distance (Edinburgh, National Gallery), Newark Castle (c. 1829; Duke of Buccleuch private collection) and Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness (private collection). The essential characteristics of the Scottish climate were conveyed with vigorous brushstrokes: driving storms, raging seas, cloudless summer skies, the cold effects of swirling mists and mountain-sides. Turner visited Thomson at Duddingston in 1818 and they collaborated in preparing illustrations to be engraved for Scott’s Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland (1826). Like Turner and Scott he ‘felt’ the power of historical association in his painting but claimed he preferred the ‘lowering stillness’ of a storm to the ‘actual hurlyburly’.
Contemporary portraits show Thomson painting in his black cleric’s robes, with the sleeves rolled up. He sketched on rough grey or brown wrapping paper in chalk heightened with white, annotating the details of colour, shade and effect. He prepared his canvases with flour boiled with vinegar which he called parritch. Over this he laid his pigments. Many works have suffered due to excess bitumen, linseed oil and mastic varnish. He painted rapidly, often completing a work in a matter of hours. His work, though criticized for lack of finish, nevertheless excited public favour. His large circle of friends included Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth, Scott, Wilkie and William Williams. He had many pupils and his work influenced Sir Daniel Macnee, William Bell Scott, Horatio McCulloch (1805–67), David Scott and the Lauders. Robert Scott Lauder married his daughter Isabella. Though he always considered himself an amateur, he exhibited in Edinburgh from 1808 until his death, and intermittently in London at the Royal Academy and British Institution. He became an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1830.
The Reverend John Thomson is represented in the following collections: Tate, London; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; University of Dundee Fine Art Collection, Dundee, amongst others.