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The Scottish Nation

KAY, JOHN, 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 father’s 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.

      Having soon 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 ‘Kay’s 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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