Allan Ramsay: 18th Century Scottish Portraiture

The works of Allan Ramsay, offered in our May 2014 Scottish Paintings auction, are close in age, painted in the decade immediately after the establishment of his London studio at the Grand Piazza in Covent Garden in 1737. During this period Ramsay swiftly made a name for himself establishing, by the 1750s, the reputation of Britain's greatest portrait painter.

This success was largely owed to three important factors. Firstly, Ramsay's career burgeoned at a time when society's opinion of the arts had recently undergone a  dramatic shift. The 18th century saw a renewed age of connoisseurship with art patronage becoming a defining factor of what it meant to be a gentleman. Secondly, Ramsay had enjoyed the successful introduction into London Society by his friend and champion Dr. Richard Mead - an important and influential arbiter of taste. Thirdly, he was arguably the first artist in Britain to move away from the set conventions of previous generations and adopt a more naturalistic, French manner towards portraiture. Allan Ramsay's style is typified by a sophisticated delicacy, at the same time achieving a high level of truth to his subjects and an unprecedented sense of intimacy.


Allan Ramsay


The earliest work offered for sale was an interesting study of 'Miss Mitchell' (1742), thought to be the grand-daughter of Sir Thomas Willys, 1st Baronet of Fen Ditton and MP for Cambridgeshire. The work has emerged from a private collection after a considerable number of years and is an example of Ramsay's acuity in presenting the viewer with an impression of character as opposed to a simple exercise in the rendering of likeness. Beyond the extravagant beauty of her gown, this is a portrayal of an intelligent woman who meets our gaze with a direct look of some force. Ramsay counted many women among his friends, notably forging lifelong relationships with some of the leading blue-stockings of the day. Though little is now known about this sitter, her quiet self-possession still speaks volumes. The stunning, silvery gown is likely to have been the work of Ramsay's favoured costume painter Van Haecken, 'The Tailor', who he was using frequently at this point.

The male portrait shown here was painted just a year later in 1743. Depicting Lord John Murray, we see a handsome young man of proud military bearing. The fourth son of the Duke of Atholl, Murray had a long and successful military career. He became a General in the Black Watch and served abroad as, according to Ramsay's chief scholar and cataloguer Smart, Aide de Camp to the King, interesting given that his two half brothers, William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine and Lord George Murray were leaders within the Jacobite movement. There is a detectable gentleness to his expression which fits with the knowledge that he was a generous defender of the rights of the men serving below him, philanthropically offering all who wanted it a rent-free cottage on his land upon retirement.


Allan Ramsey


The final portrait was painted in 1748 and was one of five commissioned by Thomas Shairp, the Fifth Laird of Houston and a friend of the artist (see illustration at head of page). His wife Janet, their son Thomas, daughter Janet and Thomas’ wife Anne, shown here, were sent the portraits upon completion by Ramsay in his London studio later that year. His daughter Janet’s portrait now hangs in the collection of Aberdeen Art Gallery and his son Thomas’s in the Edinburgh City Art Centre. We handled the sale of Thomas Shairp's own portrait last year and now that Anne has emerged on the market, only Shairp's wife Janet remains in private hands. Here we find Anne wearing a striking gown of bold red and black, perhaps denoting a passionate nature, countered by cheeks which appear rosily flushed in almost girlish fashion. This realistic rendering of flesh was due to Ramsay's adopted technique of first painting the face as a mask of vermillion, slowly building up layers of tonal glazes and body-colour. It is easy to see from this stunning work why Smart cites this group of family portraits as being "among (Ramsay's) most sensitive things".

As a member of the Hunterian Friends, a group set up to support the The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, we were proud to support the museum’s major exhibition Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment. An exhibition set to mark the tercentenary of the artist’s birth it included key works from across his 30 year career as a portraitist focussing on the Enlightenment context in which many of the subjects sat.


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