Ramsay, Allan (1713-1784) (DNB00)

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RAMSAY, ALLAN (1713–1784), painter, was the eldest child of Allan Ramsay (1686–1758) [q. v.], the poet. His mother's maiden name was Christian Ross. He was born in Edinburgh in 1713, and seems to have begun to draw from a very early age. When he was about twenty he came to London, and at once entered himself as a student at the St. Martin's Lane academy, then, or soon after, located in Roubiliac's old studio. From a letter printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1853, he lived at this time in Orange Court by Leicester Fields. He subsequently worked, either as assistant or pupil, with Hans Huessing, a Swede resident in London at this date, who imitated Michael Dahl. After a two years' stay in London, young Ramsay returned to his native city, whence, after some practice in portrait-painting, he started in June 1736 for a prolonged tour on the continent, his ultimate destination being Rome. His travelling companion was an Edinburgh physician, Dr. Alexander Cunningham, afterwards Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield. Extracts from Cunningham's diary were printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1853, and they give a good idea of the grand tour as practised by persons of moderate means. After travelling through France to Marseilles, and being all but cast away off Pisa, they reached Rome in October 1736.

At Rome Ramsay studied diligently. He worked in the French Academy; he worked under the history-painter Imperiali; he worked under Solimena (the Abate Ciccio). Having been three years in Italy, he went back to Edinburgh, where he again found occupation as a portrait-painter. He painted Duncan Forbes the judge, the third Duke of Argyll, Sir John Barnard, Sir Peter Halkett, and Dr. Mead, the last-named being in the National Portrait Gallery, London. While still in Edinburgh, in 1754, he founded the ‘Select Society’ for liberal debate, of which Robertson, Hume, and Adam Smith were the chief ornaments (cf. Dugald Stewart, Life of Robertson, 1802, v.; Carlyle, Autobiography, p. 297). A few years after this date he migrated to London, finding an early patron in the Duke of Bridgwater, and later in Lord Bute, of whom he executed a particularly fortunate full-length. Many commissions followed, Lord Hardwicke, Judge Burnet, Flora Macdonald, and Admiral Boscawen being among his sitters. Apart from these portraits, popularised rapidly by the mezzotints of McArdell and Faber, Ramsay was largely employed in decoration, an industry which involved an army of assistants; and he began to grow rich. According to Cunningham, whose information was derived from the son of one of Ramsay's pupils, even ‘before he had the luck to become a favourite with the king, he was perfectly independent as to fortune, having, in one way or another, accumulated not less than forty thousand pounds,’ a sum which almost justified the jeremiads of Hogarth over the popularity of face-painting. What is perhaps more remarkable, however, is that he was not only highly in request as a portrait-painter, but (circa 1760) was even preferred to Reynolds. It was the opinion of Walpole, for instance, that Ramsay excelled Reynolds as a painter of women. ‘Mr. Reynolds seldom succeeds in women; Mr. Ramsay is formed to paint them’ (Letter to Dalrymple, 25 Feb. 1758).

With the accession of George III his favour with the court increased, and in 1767 he succeeded John Shackleton [q. v.] as portrait-painter to his majesty, an appointment which had the effect of turning his studio into a manufactory of presentments of royal and official personages, in which little but the head (and often not even that) was executed by himself. The king's inveterate habit of giving away elaborate full-lengths of himself and Queen Charlotte kept him constantly employed; but he seems nevertheless to have found time for a good many likenesses of contemporary celebrities. Of these are the admirable Lord Chesterfield in the National Portrait Gallery, and the portraits of Lord Mansfield, Lord Camden, Gibbon, Hume, the Duke de Nivernais, Rousseau, and Henry Fox. The Hume and the Rousseau, both of which belong to 1766, the year of Rousseau's visit to England, are in the National Gallery of Scotland, which also contains a very beautiful picture of Mrs. Ramsay, the painter's wife, and the eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay. An accident interrupted his work a few years before his death; he was showing his household how to escape in case of fire, when he fell and dislocated his arm. With much fortitude, he contrived to complete the work (a royal portrait) upon which he was engaged; but he never really recovered the shock. Leaving his commissions to his pupil, Philip Reinagle [q. v.], whose manner closely resembled his own, he set out once more for Italy, where he continued to reside, until, returning home in a fit of home-sickness, he died on the way at Dover in August 1784. He is buried in St. Marylebone Church. Portraits of Ramsay by himself, Lilie, and Alexander Nasmyth are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Ramsay was a man of considerable culture, a traveller, an excellent linguist, and a good scholar. His literary gifts—as evidenced by the volume of essays entitled ‘The Investigator,’ 1762—were far above the average, and his love of letters was genuine. He published anonymously four pamphlets—respectively on the nature of government (1769), the English constitution (1771), the quarrel with America (1777), and the right of conquest (1783).

Among the group of Johnson's friends, Ramsay was distinguished for his amenity, his knowledge of the world, and his social charm. ‘You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance than in Ramsay's,’ said Johnson, who was often the painter's guest at 67 Harley Street (Boswell, Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 336). As a painter, his merits lie rather in the even level of their accomplishment than in their supreme excellence in any one quality. His portraits are unaffected likenesses of his sitters, by an artist who has mastered all the methods of his craft, and whose point of view is that of a gentleman. His court office confined him in his choice of subjects, and his work has been eclipsed by the more splendid legacy of Gainsborough and Reynolds.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Boswell's Johnson; Cunningham's Lives, ed. Heaton; Rouquet, Etat des Arts en Angleterre, 1755; Stanhope's Hist. of England, vi. 324.]

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