Memories of Toney’s Dedication to his Art
George Comer (Toney) Duncan was my dad. He passed away on April 16, 1962 at age 55 when I was a sophomore at North Carolina State University. From the time he was a young person until his death, he was an avid artist. He obviously found much sustenance and joy in drawing and painting. I remember as a kid watching him draw and paint with intense interest and admiration and tried to figure out how to do the same, probably with somewhat limited success. He was an inspiration to me, showing me by doing that one could be creative. He showed how one can dream up something and render it in a way that could communicate ideas. He also showed how sticking with a project is also important.
Dad worked primarily at the local movie theater (Palace, Dolly Madison, and Kirby) owned by Teague Kirby. Dad was the manager. The job did not pay very much, so Dad relied on his artistic talents to generate needed income for our family. Early in his adult life he (self-) learned to paint signs and did that whenever a job came along in Roxboro. I recall that his job as theater manager meant that he was at work from 2 PM until after 11 PM every day, with an hour off for dinner at home. So during the mornings he did sign painting and other commercial art in the basement. He was a perfectionist with the signs and with his drawings and paintings. I think that he had a pretty good reputation around town as someone who would do good work on time and of good quality. The only problem was I don’t think he charged enough. One useful thing about the theater manager’s job was that during the second movie of the night, there was not much that needed doing. So he would do sketches of varying things and make plans to do paintings. Both watercolor and oil paintings were media with which he enjoyed trying out new ideas. In addition, he really enjoyed wood carving. I still have some of his carved animal and human figures and enjoy the memories of him carefully and slowly starting with a block of soft wood and gradually ending up with the finished figures. One of his most ambitious woodcarving projects was a complete stagecoach with horses, reins, cowboy riders, and little doors revealing the inside of the stagecoach with its seats. Unfortunately my sister and I flipped a coin to decide which of us would have it and I lost. She treasures the stagecoach!
I also have a group of his drawings and sketches. I have framed some of the better ones and am enjoying seeing them every day.
The Last Supper Commission and my fortunate re-discovery of it
We lived on Morgan Street in Roxboro from about 1946 to 1950. The house still stands. Our family had moved in my grandmother Beaulah Williams Farley after my grandmother Farley’s sister Margaret had died. My sister and I really enjoyed our time in that house. There were kids in the neighborhood with whom we became good friends until we all were grown and some had left Roxboro to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The friends included Thomas Hughes Masten, Winkie Wilkins, Bill Strum, and Norman Bowen. I entered the first grade in 1948 at Central School which for many years was the in-town elementary school. In fact my Mother went to that school and Mother and I had the same first grade teacher, Miss Mary Long.
The year in I entered the first grade is when Dad started and finished a commission to paint a copy if Leonardo da’Vinci’s The Last Supper. The work was commissioned by the Longhurst Baptist Church. Dad had a shed out back where he did paintings, sign painting, wood work, etc. Although I don’t have a clear memory of the painting from beginning to end, that had to be where it was done. I also do not know how much he charged to do the painting. It has a size of 72 inches width and 36 inches height, so it was a pretty major piece to take on. Dad had done several other oil paintings in the 1920s and 1930s, so this was not the first such larger scale work. This one, however, has a very well known history and is widely copied and used in various religous settings.
Over the years I only recall seeing the Last Supper painting once when I was visiting my mother in the 1970s. It was indeed at the Longhurst Baptist Church. As the years have passed I lost track of whether it was still at the church and being displayed. Recently, I decided to try to stop by and see it and take some photos. However, it turns out that the church had sold the building to Strickland Funeral Home in 1980 when the church erected a new church building across the street. It is now known as the North Roxboro Baptist Church. So, we went to the ‘new’ church and with the help of a high school classmate who is a church member we initiated a search in the church for the painting. It was not displayed and its whereabouts had seemingly dropped off people’s memory. This was disappointing of course. There were some other members of the church who might know, so we left it to our friend to check further. A few weeks later we got word that the painting was located. It was not in the church any longer. When the original church was sold to the funeral home circa 1980 the painting apparently was of not of sufficient interest and was destined to be discarded or sold at a ‘yard sale’. When one of the church members learned of this, she decided that she and her husband would take the painting. They had the painting displayed in their home and she was gracious enough to let me, my wife, and my sister-in-law and brother-in-law stop by and see it.
Some Photos of the painting by Toney Duncan done in 1948
I was blown away in seeing this work after 66 years. As you can see in the image below, the quality of the colors is essentially intact after all this time. Clearly, the painting has been well taken care of and is hung in a place which is friendly. While I would very much like to have this painting, it is clear to me that it has a home which has been good to it. Many thanks to the couple who kept it and honored the work. I will also show more details of the painting in the images below, both to record just what it is and to preserve its memory after all this time.
Here is a close up showing his signature and date:
The painting currently resides in a room where their extensive collection of Christmas decorations are kept.
Next I show a sequence of photos made at a closer range of segments of the painting so one can get a better sense of the detail and coloring in the painting.
Finally, here is a somewhat closer view showing Jesus Christ’s rendition.
We also took some photos of the woman who has kept the painting since circa 1980. She was very gracious.
I hope that this collection serves to record an example of Toney Duncan’s work. It was a big deal in our family–a sense of pride is clearly attached to it. It was great to find it again and very exciting to get some photos of it and the meet the person who has kept it in such good shape all these years.