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Ramsay, Hugh


was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on 25 May 1877. He came to Australia with his parents when one year old. His father, John Ramsay, was a sworn valuer, his mother's name was originally Margaret Thomson. Hugh Ramsay was educated at the Essendon Grammar School, and at the age of 16 joined the classes at the national gallery, Melbourne, under L. Bernard Hall (q.v.) and became one of the most brilliant students ever trained there. He won several first prizes, and at the competition for the travelling scholarship held in 1899 was narrowly beaten by Max Meldrum, another student of unusual ability. In September 1900 he went to Europe and was fortunate in finding a kindred spirit, George Lambert (q.v.), on the same vessel. Arrived at Paris he entered at Colarossi's school and was soon recognized as a student of great promise. He sent five pictures to the 1902 exhibition of La Société Nationale des Beaux Arts and the four accepted were hung together. No greater compliment could have been paid to a young student. Another Australian student whose studio was in the same building, Ambrose Patterson, was a nephew of Madame Melba (q.v.), then at the height of her fame. Ramsay was introduced to Melba, who gave him a commission for a portrait and would no doubt have been able to help him in his career. Unfortunately Ramsay fell ill in Paris, and it became necessary for him to return to the warmer climate of Australia. Before leaving Europe he had exhibited four pictures at the British Colonial Art Exhibition held in London at the Royal Institute galleries.

Back in Australia, in spite of failing health, Ramsay succeeded in doing some remarkable work including "The Sisters" now in the Sydney gallery, the "Lady with a Fan", the portrait of David Mitchell, and his own portrait now in the Melbourne gallery. He gradually became weaker and died on 5 March 1906 a few weeks before completing his twenty-ninth year. A brother, Sir John Ramsay, born in 1872, became a well-known surgeon at Launceston, Tasmania, and was knighted in 1939.

Ramsay's death was a great loss to Australian art. The student who painted the "Study of Girl-half nude" at 18 and "The Toper" at 19 might have become one of the great masters of his time. How far he travelled may be seen in the examples of his work in the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide galleries. He was of the school of Whistler among the moderns, of Velasquez among the old masters, but owed them no more than any serious student should. When in 1918 his works were gathered together for an exhibition only 54 pictures could be found and many of them were studies. A similar collection was shown at the national gallery, Melbourne, in March 1943, and at its conclusion seven pictures were presented to the gallery by his relatives. A Hugh Ramsay prize in the painting school was founded by his father in 1906.

There are no stories about Ramsay, his health demanded a retired life and the saving of what strength he had for his art. He was tall and slender and fond of music. The light of his genius shone on his period quietly and steadily, only to be too quickly quenched.


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