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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
John Kay, Caricaturist, Engraver, and Miniature Painter


John Kay

The following sketch of the life of John Kay was written by himself, with the view, it is believed, of being prefixed to a collection of his works which he had projected:—

"John Kay was born in April, 1742, in a small house a little south from Dalkeith, commonly called Gibraltar. His father, Mr. John Kay, was a mason in Dalkeith, as well as his two paternal uncles, James and Norman Kay. His mother, Helen Alexander, was heiress to many tenements in Edinburgh and Canongate, out of which she was tricked by the circumvention of some of her own relations.

"She had still so much confidence in these relations, however, that upon the death of her husband in 1748, she boarded her only son John, then only six years of age, with one of them, who used him extremely ill, and not only neglected, but beat and starved him. While he lived with these savages in Leith, he ran various risks of his life from accidents without doors, as well as from bad usage within ; and there is every reason to believe that they really wished his death, and took every method to accomplish it except downright murder. On one occasion he was blown into the sea from the Ferry-boat Stairs, and on another he fell into the water on stepping across the joists below the Wooden Pier, but recovered himself both times, by grasping the steps on the one occasion, and the joists on the other. But he rau a still greater risk of drowning upon a third occasion, when, happening to be seated on the side of a ship in the harbour, he was accidentally pushed overboard, and being taken up for dead, remained in that condition for some time, till one of the sailors, anxious to see him, in his hurry trampled upon his belly, which immediately excited a groan, and produced respiration and articulation. He might have died, however, that same evening, had not other people taken more care of him than his barbarous relations did.

"About this time he gave strong proofs of an uncommon genius for drawing, by sketching men, horses, cattle, houses, etc., with chalk, charcoal, or pieces of burnt wood, for want of pencils and crayons. But under the government of his cousins, no propensity of this kind was either attended to or encouraged. Aud, though he himself wished rather to be a mason, the profession of his father and uncles, yet, by some fatality or other, it happened that he was bound apprentice to one George Heriot, a barber in Dalkeith, about the age of thirteen or little more.

"With this honest man he learned his business, and served six years, during which time, although he did every kind of drudgery work, he was perfectly happy in comparison of the state of tyranny under which he had so long groaned at Leith. When his time was out he came to Edinburgh, where he wrought seven years as a journeyman with different masters, after which he began to think of doing business for himself; but not having the freedom of the city, he was obliged to purchase it from the Society of Surgeon-Barbers, of which corporation he accordingly became a member the 19th December 1771, upon paying about .40 sterling.

"This business he carried on with great success for several years, being employed by a number of the principal nobility and gentry in and about Edinburgh. Among other genteel customers, he was employed by the late William Nisbet, Esq., of Dirleton, who not only employed him in town, but also took him various jaunts through the country with him in his machine ; aud at last became so fond of him, that for several years before he died, particularly the two last (178:J and 1784), he had him almost constantly with him, by night and by day.

"The leisure time he had on these occasions, while he lodged at Mr. Nisbet's house, afforded him an opportunity, which he took care not to neglect, of gratifying the natural propensity of his genius, by improving himself in drawing; and Mr. Nisbet having approved of his exertions, and encouraged him in the pursuit, he executed at this time a great number of miniature paintings—some of which are still in the possession of the family of Dirleton, and the greater part in his own.

"It should have been mentioned earlier in the order of chronology, that our hero married, so early as the twentieth year of his age, Miss Lilly Steven, who bore him ten children, all of whom died young except his eldest son, William, who was named after Mr. Nisbet, and who seems to inherit his father's talent for drawing. Mrs. Kay died in March, 1785, and after living upwards of two years a widower, our hero married his present wife, Miss Margaret Scott, with whom he now lives very happily.

"Mr. Nisbet, of Dirleton, previous to his death, sensible that, by occupying so much of Mr. Kay's time, he could not but hurt his business, although he sent money regularly to Mrs. Kay, had often promised to make him amends by settling a genteel annuity upon him. This, however, from his debilitated habit of body, was delayed from time to time, till death put-it out of his power. But, to the honour of his heir, he was so sensible of Mr. Kay's good offices to his father, as well as of his father's intentions, that he voluntarily made a settlement of 20 per annum for life upon him.

"After the death of his patron, our author attempted to etch in aquafortis, and having published some of his Prints executed in this way, he met with so much unexpected success, that he at last determined to drop his old profession altogether, which he did accordingly in 1785.

"Our author has drawn himself, in the Print, sitting in a thoughtful posture, in an antiquated chair, (whereby he means to represent his love of antiquities,) with his favourite cat (the largest it is believed in Scotland) sitting upon the back of it; several pictures hanging behind him; a bust of Homer, with his painting utensils on the table before him, a scroll of paper in his hand, and a volume of his works upon his knee."

Mr. Kay continued from the above period till about the year 1817 to exercise his talents in engraving. For a period of nearly half a century, few persons of any notoriety who figured in the Scottish capital have escaped his notice, and he has occasionally indulged himself in caricaturing such local incidents as might amuse the public.

In this way he has formed a collection altogether unique ; and we concur with Mr. Chambers in thinking, that "it may with safety be affirmed that no city in the empire can boast of so curious a chronicle." It is right, in addition to this, to mention that his etchings are universally admitted to possess one merit, which of itself stamps them with value, namely, that of being exact and faithful likenesses of the parties intended to be represented.

The emoluments derived from his engravings and painting miniature likenesses in water colours, together with the annuity from the Dirleton family, regularly paid by Sir Henry Jardiue, rendered him tolerably independent.

He had a small print-shop on the south side of the Parliament Square, in which he sold his productions, and the windows of which, being always filled with his more recent works, used to be a great attraction to the idlers of the time. It was, with the rest of the old buildings in the square, destroyed by the great fire in November, 1824.

In his outward appearance he was a slender, straight old man, of middle size, and usually dressed in a garb of antique cut, of simple habits, and quiet unassuming manners. He died at his house, No. 227 High Street, Edinburgh, 21st February, 1826, in the eighty-fourth year of his age. His widow survived him upwards of nine years; her death took place in November, 1835. The son alluded to by Mr. Kay in his biography predeceased his father.


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