Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kay, John (1742-1826)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 30
Kay, John (1742-1826) by no contributor recorded

KAY, JOHN (1742–1826), miniature-painter and caricaturist, was born near Dalkeith in April 1742. His father, who was a mason, died when he was six years of age, and he was placed under the care of some relatives of his mother in Leith, from whom he received little kindness; and at the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to George Heriot, a barber in Dalkeith. Here he remained for six years; for seven years longer he was a journeyman barber in Edinburgh; and on 19 Dec. 1771 he purchased the freedom of the city, being enrolled a member of the Society of Surgeon-Barbers, and started in business on his own account. All the while, however, he had devoted his spare time to art; and, without any instruction in drawing, he produced many portrait sketches marked by a certain quaint originality, and possessing considerable fidelity as likenesses. His pursuits attracted the attention of the better class of his customers, and he found a warm patron in William Nisbet of Dirleton, who encouraged him in his art, invited him to his country-house, and indeed ‘grew so fond of him’ that ‘he had him almost constantly with him by night and day.’ Nisbet died in 1784, and his heir made good an annuity of 20l. which he had intended to settle upon Kay. In 1785 Kay finally relinquished his trade for art. He drew and etched many portraits, more or less caricatured. The earliest of his dated etchings is the portrait of himself, inscribed 1786. He sold his etchings in his little shop in the Parliament Close, Edinburgh, and these singly issued impressions show his prints at their best; but he was never an accomplished draughtsman or a master of the technicalities of etching. His work, which is solely of antiquarian value, affords a quaint picture of Edinburgh society in his time. He is stated by Redgrave to have etched in all nearly nine hundred plates; and drew almost every notable Scotsman of his time, with the exception of Burns. His etchings of Adam Smith are, with the posthumous medallions by Tassie, the only authentic likenesses that we possess of the great economist. The artist made some arrangements with a view to the publication of his works; and aided, it is said, by James Thomson Callender [q. v.] he compiled some descriptive letterpress, including a slight autobiographical sketch; but the work was unfinished at his death. In 1837–8 a quarto edition of his plates, under the title of ‘A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by the late John Kay, miniature painter, Edinburgh,’ was published in monthly numbers by Hugh Paton, Edinburgh, edited by James Maidment, accompanied with curious biographical matter, chiefly compiled by James Paterson, author of ‘The History of the County of Ayr,’ &c., aided by David Laing, Alexander Smellie, and other antiquaries. A second edition, in four volumes, 8vo, was issued in 1842 by the same publishers. The plates then passed into the hands of A. and C. Black, Edinburgh, who had them retouched, and in 1877 published a third edition in two volumes, 4to, after which the coppers were destroyed. A ‘Popular Letterpress Edition,’ in two volumes, 8vo, reproducing, very inadequately, the more interesting of the plates, and reprinting a portion of the letterpress, was published in London, and at Glasgow, in 1885. Kay contributed portraits to each of the exhibitions of the Edinburgh Associated Artists from 1811 to 1816, and to the fourth exhibition of the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, 1822. An interesting collection of his drawings, which are somewhat more artistic than his etchings, is preserved in the library of the Royal Scottish Academy. He died at his house, 227 High Street, Edinburgh, on 21 Feb. 1826 (Memoir given in Kay's Works), and was buried in the Greyfriars' churchyard there. He had married in his twentieth year Lilly Steven, who bore him ten children, all of whom—including a son, W. Kay, who showed an aptitude for art and etched several plates—died before him. Two years after her death, in March 1785, he married his second wife, Margaret Scott, who died in November 1835.

[The various editions of Kay's Works; Redgrave's Dict. of English Artists, 2nd edit. 1878; Anderson's Scottish Nation, 1875; Autobiographical Reminiscences of James Paterson, 1871; Catalogue of the Exhibitions of the Edinburgh Associated Society of Artists, and of the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland.]