an eminent caricaturist, engraver, and miniature painter, was born in
April 1742, at Gibraltar, near Dalkeith. His father, who was a
stone-mason, died when he was only six years of age, and his death
prevented his son from being brought up to the same trade. He was
boarded with some relations of his mother in Leith, who treated him
with great cruelty and neglect; and he himself informs us, that, in
his boyhood, he had various narrow escapes from being drowned in the
harbour of that place. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to
one George Heriot, a barber in Dalkeith, whom he served for six years.
When his time was out, he went to Edinburgh, where he worked as a
journeyman barber under different masters, and afterwards, on December
19, 1771, purchased the freedom of the city, for which he paid about
£40 to the society of surgeon-barbers, and began business for himself.
Among his customers were several of the principal nobility and gentry
of Edinburgh, and one of them in particular, William Nisbet, Esq. of
Dirleton, became so much attached to him, that, for some years before
his death, he had him almost constantly residing with him at his
country-seat. During this period, Kay employed his leisure time in
improving himself in drawing, having an uncommon natural genius that
way; and, being encouraged by Mr. Nisbet, he executed a great number
of miniature paintings, some of which are still at Dirleton House. Mr.
Nisbet died in 1784, and his son, knowing that it was his fathers
intention, which death prevented him from carrying into effect, to
bequeath an annuity to Kay for his good offices, settled on him £20
yearly for life.
after published some etchings in aquafortis, he met with so much
success as induced him to relinquish his trade of a barber in 1785,
and devote himself entirely to engraving, and painting miniature
likenesses in water colours, the most striking feature of which was
their astonishing fidelity. From this period to the year 1817 he
produced a great variety of etchings of public personages, with
occasional caricatures of local incidents, and odd and eccentric
characters. In 1786 he executed a characteristic likeness of himself,
with his favourite cat, supposed to be the largest in Scotland, and a
bust of Homer, with his painting materials on the table before him,
from which the foregoing woodcut is taken.
[portrait of John Kay]
He had a small
print shop on the south side of the Parliament Square, Edinburgh,
which, with the other old buildings of that locality, was destroyed by
the great fire of November 1824. Mr. Kay died at his house, 227 High
Street, Edinburgh, February 21, 1826, in the 84th year of
his age. In his twentieth year he had married Lilly Steven, who bore
him ten children, all of whom died long before himself. She dying in
March 1785, he took for his second wife, in 1787, Margaret Scott, who
survived him upwards of nine years, and died in November 1835. After
her death, the copperplates of his works were purchased by Mr. Hugh
Paton, carver and gilder, Edinburgh, who republished them in
half-crown monthly parts, forming two quarto volumes, with
biographical sketches, under the title of Kays Edinburgh Portraits.
A cheaper edition was issued in octavo volumes in 1842. The work forms
a collection altogether unique, and of great local interest, and was a
very successful publication.
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