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Significant Scots
Allan Ramsay


RAMSAY, ALLAN, an eminent portrait-painter, was the eldest son of the subject of the preceding article, and was born in Edinburgh in the year 1713. He received a liberal education, and displayed in boyhood a taste for the art which he afterwards successfully cultivated. His father, writing to his friend Smibert in 1736, says: "My son Allan has been pursuing your science since he was a dozen years auld; was with Mr Hyffidg in London for some time, about two years ago; has since been painting here like a Raphael: sets out for the seat of the beast beyond the Alps within a month hence, to be away two years. I’m sweer to part with him, but canna stem the current which flows from the advice of his patrons and his own inclination." It is to be supposed that the father would be the less inclined to control his son in this matter, as he was himself, in early life, anxious to be brought up as a painter. In Italy young Ramsay studied three years under Solimano and Imperiali, two artists of celebrity. He then returned to his native country, and commenced business, painting, amongst others, his father’s friend, president Forbes, and his own sister, Janet Ramsay, whose portraits are preserved in Newhall house, and an excellent full-length of Archibald duke of Argyle, in his robes as an extraordinary lord of session, now in the Town Hall, Glasgow. The name of Allan Ramsay junior, is found in the list of the members of the Academy of St Luke, an association of painters and lovers of painting, instituted at Edinburgh in 1729, but which does not appear to have done anything worthy of record. [The rules of this obscure institution, with the signatures, were published by Mr Patrick Gibson, in his "View of the Arts of Design in Britain," in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1816.] It would also appear that he employed part of his time in giving private instructions in drawing, for it was while thus engaged in the family of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, that he gained the heart and hand of the baronet’s eldest daughter, Margaret—a niece of the illustrious Mansfield--by whom he had three children. In 1754, he became the founder of the Select Society, which comprised all the eminent learned characters then living in the Scottish capital, and which he was well qualified to adorn, as he was an excellent classical scholar, knew French and Italian perfectly, and had all the polish and liberal feeling of a highly instructed man.

Previously to this period he had made London his habitual residence, though he occasionally visited both Rome and Edinburgh. In Bouquet’s pamphlet on "the Present State of the Fine Arts in England," published in 1755, he is spoken of as "an able painter, who, acknowledging no other guide than nature, brought a rational taste of resemblance with him from Italy. Even in his portraits," says this writer, "he shows that just steady spirit, which he so agreeably displays in his conversation." He found in the earl of Bridgewater, one of his earliest English patrons. He was also introduced by the earl of Bute to the prince of Wales, afterwards George III., of whom he painted portraits, both in full length and in profile, which were engraved, the one by Ryland, the other by Woollett. He practised portrait-painting for several years with distinguished success, being deficient, according to Walpole, rather in subjects than in genius. His portraits are distinguished by a calm unaffected representation of nature and he is universally allowed to have contributed, with Reynolds, to raise this branch of art in Britain. He had not long been in practice before he acquired considerable wealth, which, it appears, he used in a liberal spirit. When his father died in 1757, in somewhat embarrassed circumstances, he paid his debts, settling, at the same time, a pension on his unmarried sister, Janet Ramsay, who survived till 1804.

In 1767, Ramsay was appointed portrait-painter to the king and queen, which brought him an immense increase of employment, as portraits of their majesties were perpetually in demand for foreign courts, ambassadors, and public bodies at home. He was, therefore, obliged to engage no fewer than five assistants to forward his pictures, among whom was David Martin, the predecessor of Raeburn. In consequence of his enlightened and arousing conversation, he became a great favourite with their majesties, the queen being particularly pleased with him on account of his ability to converse in German, in which he had not a rival at court, save amongst her own domestics. The state nobles, and other public leaders of that time, were also fond of the conversation of Ramsay, who is said to have taken more pleasure in politics and literature than in his art, and wrote many pieces on controverted subjects, with the signature, "Investigator," which were ultimately collected into a volume. He corresponded, too, with Voltaire and Rousseau, both of whom he visited when abroad; and his letters are said to have been elegant and witty. "Ramsay, in short," says Mr A. Cunningham, "led the life of an elegant accomplished man of the world, and public favourite." He was frequently of Dr Johnson’s parties, who said of him, "You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and elegance, than in Ramsay’s." He was noted in his own country for having, after the battle of Prestonpans, written an imitation of the song of Deborah in scripture, which he put into the mouth of a jacobite young lady of family, and which displayed considerable powers of satire; and in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1813, will be found a burlesque on Horace’s "Integer Vitae," which shows such a dexterous union of the Latin rhythm with the English rhyme, as none but a man of a singular kind of genius could have effected. [The following portraits, by Mr Ramsay, have, amongst others, been engraved: -- King George III. Queen Charlotte. Frederick, prince of Wales. Lord chancellor Hardwicke. The earl of Bute. John, duke of Argyle. The earl of Bath. Sir Charles Pratt (lord Cambden). Thomas Burnet, judge of common pleas. Hugh Dalrymple (lord Drummore). Dr Alexander Monro, primus. David Hume. Archibald, duke of Argyle. President Forbes. Provost Coutts. Lady George Lennox. Lady Erskine. Allan Ramsay, the poet.]

In consequence of an accident which injured his arm, Ramsay retired from business about the year 1775. He then lived several years in Italy, amusing himself chiefly with literary pursuits. His health gradually sinking, he formed the wish to return to his native land; but the motion of the carriage brought on a slow fever by the way, and he died at Dover, August 10, 1784, in the seventy-first year of his age.

John Ramsay, the son of the painter, entered the army, and rose to the rank of major-general. His two daughters, Amelia and Charlotte, were respectively married to Sir Archibald Campbell of Inverness, and colonel Malcolm of Ford farm, Surrey.


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