Allan Ramsay Jnr, artist and portrait painter, died on the 10th of August, 1784.
Allan Ramsay was the leading portrait painter of his day and, in many people's eyes, the greatest portrait painter of the 18th Century. He was the master of the direct informal portrait, being instrumental in formulating a native Scottish style of painting as his father had done for poetry. His subjects included the historian, Edward Gibbon, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, and the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald, who turns out to be rather attractive. However, not all those who sat for him were overjoyed with the results. The French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, was sulkily unimpressed by his portrait, but “ye cannae mak a silk purse oot o’ a coo’s lug.”
During his prime period, Ramsey had a virtual monopoly on court painting, becoming the official painter to George III, in 1760, and ‘Principal Painter-in-Ordinary’, in 1767. Of course, this aroused a bit of envy amongst the artistic types, with one such rival, Joshua Reynolds, tritely commenting that Ramsay was “not a good painter.” The National Portrait Galleries in London and Edinburgh have examples of his work.
Ramsey was part of the intellectual society of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ and was a friend of Dr Johnson. He was also the founder, in 1754, of the ‘Select Society’ of Edinburgh, the aims of which were to promote "literary discussions, philosophical enquiry, and improvement in public speaking." The founding membership reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the period, including: David Hume, the celebrated historian and philosopher, Dr. Adam Smith, distinguished writer on morals and political economy, Alexander Wedderburn, Earl of Rosslyn and distinguished lawyer, and Dr. Alexander Carlyle, an accomplished Presbyterian divine.
Allan Ramsay, the eldest son of the Scottish poet of the same name, was born in Edinburgh on the 13th of October, 1713. He was encouraged by his father, who had always interested in the visual arts and, in 1729, had helped to found the Academy of St. Luke, named after the patron saint of painting. Allan Ramsay Snr was the artist’s first portraiture subject at St. Luke’s, but it seems he also studied decorating and house-painting under James Norie, a friend of his father. We’re not talking Dulux here mind; more the decorative frieze kind of painting. During his early days as an artist, Ramsay studied in London at the studio of Hans Hysing (Hyffidg), the Swedish portrait painter, and at the Academy in St. Martin's Lane, run by Hogarth. Thereafter, he went to Italy, where he studied the Old Masters and copied works by his teachers.
There are some gems worth repeating from a letter his father wrote to the artist, John Smibert, in 1736. He wrote, "My son Allan has been pursuing your science since he was a dozen years auld” and “[he] has since been painting here like a Raphael.” Commenting in his son’s imminent departure for Italy, he added, “[he] sets out for the seat of the beast beyond the Alps within a month hence” and “I’m sweer to part with him, but canna stem the current which flows from the advice of his patrons and his own inclination.” During the two years of 1736 and 1738, Ramsay studied at the French Academy in Rome, under Francesco Imperiali and Vlenghels, and with Francesco Solimena in Naples. The Baroque subject matter of most of his teachers' paintings were not much of an influence, with those guys being into religious and historical themes, but they had plenty to teach in terms of style, technique and colour. In France, Ramsay displayed an aptitude for painting nudes and was described as a "diligent and observant student, rapidly gaining anatomical knowledge” – and who wouldn’t be?
Ramsay was also a correspondent of Voltaire and the aforementioned Rousseau, and a writer of poetry and essays. In ‘On Ridicule’, from 1753, he wrote that truth was “the leading and inseparable principle in all works of art”. William Anderson, in ‘The Scottish Nation: Biographical History of the People of Scotland’, wrote that during the 1740s and ’50s Ramsay can be seen “equally successful in a style of polished elegance on the one hand and of extreme simplicity on the other.” In his ‘Dialogue on Taste’, of 1755, Ramsay wrote about poetry, and rejected the "absurd metaphysics" of Spenser and his like, suggesting that "instead of representations of truth and the real existence of things", those guys were writing about the exploits of impossible beings in an impossible world. No doubt something of his attitude to the place of simple realism in painting may be inferred from those remarks. Experts would agree that Ramsay's portraits should be celebrated for their resemblance to nature and their unstudied simplicity.
After his return from Rome, Ramsay divided his time between Edinburgh and London, and set about enhancing his reputation as a portrait painter. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, in 1743, and was introduced to George III, whose portrait he painted both in whole length and in profile. Later, in March of 1767, he was appointed principal painter to the King. Around the time he was sixty-two. Poor Ramsay shattered his right arm in some kind of an accident and was thereafter unable to paint. A tragedy for the man, but he compensated by retiring to Rome in 1775, where he amused himself with literary pursuits. Then, in 1784, sensing his end, he decided that he wasn’t going to be buried in Rome. Allan Ramsay determined to return to his native Scotland, but he never made it. He got as far as Dover, where he died on the 10th of August, 1784.