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Around the galleries

A phenomenal success story – the career of Allan Ramsay

— November 2013

Associated media

Allan Ramsay, Dr William Hunter (c.1764–65) Oil on canvas, 95.9x74.9cm The Hunterian, University of Glasgow GLAHA 44026

Patricia L. Andrew reports on a Glasgow show of the great Scottish painter’s portraits

Allan Ramsay (1713–84) was one of the greatest of Scottish portraitists and a significant figure in the intellectual world of his day. The current exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, marks the tercentenary of his birth.

Ramsay’s career was a phenomenal success story, for he rose from relatively modest beginnings to become the Principal Painter to George III. Yet this was one of only several achievements: he was an important figure at the centre of the Scottish (indeed, owing to his continental connections, European) Enlightenment, a writer of cultural and political essays, and an antiquary and classical archaeologist.  

Ramsay made four visits to Italy, unique for a British artist in the 18th century. He early absorbed the grand manner of portraiture, though his style was later more influenced by the lightness and delicacy of French artists, such as Chardin. Yet however much he took inspiration from others, he remained an empiricist, working from what he saw rather than what he imagined, observing closely and working out his compositions by drawing. The extent of his practice of drawing was, at its time, unique. Many of his studies survive, valued today in their own right, as well as for the evidence they give of Ramsay’s technique.

The exhibition is at the Hunterian, and the portrait of the eponymous Dr Hunter, with his piercing gaze and his elegant (but not showy) dress, is one of Ramsay’s finest portraits. Other luminaries gaze at us, and knowing how celebrated a conversationalist Ramsay was, they were no doubt enjoying erudite conversations as they sat to him.

Ramsay’s women are intelligent, indeed several were noted blue-stockings, and he delights in the colour and detail of their dress without any diminution of their value as personalities.  He had a knack of being true to what he saw, while at the same time producing compositions that flattered. Those who were ugly appear at least comely, the plain are almost beautiful, and the beautiful very beautiful indeed.

This modestly sized exhibition does not attempt to provide a survey of Ramsay’s oeuvre, but centres on a selection of oil portraits, drawings, watercolours and printed matter. The aim is to demonstrate Ramsay’s achievements in portraiture, and his place in the intellectual and cultural life of Edinburgh and London, together with the influences of Paris and Rome.

To those who know Ramsay’s work, the show’s outstanding feature is the opportunity it provides to see paintings not usually accessible to the public. It is always a delight to greet ‘old friends’ in portraiture who are well known from photographs, but who have never before been encountered in the original. And it is always very interesting to see familiar paintings in new contexts: several of these paintings are almost always on show in public galleries, and to see them in a new setting, together with new companions, prompts the mind into viewing them afresh.

The hanging is good, given the rather oddly configured space the Hunterian has at its disposal, and the display boards well written. Items are shown in very small sections, not always that well defined (in one instance just two paintings, a drawing and a book). This, however, gives the viewer guidance that helps, rather than hinders, the visual digestion of what could otherwise appear, to a non-specialist, a slightly challenging assembly of faces.

The accompanying publication (rather misnamed a catalogue) includes some wonderful images, and the essays delve into various aspects of Ramsay’s art and mind in some depth – this is a book for the serious student. However, there is some repetition of material from earlier publications, not all acknowledged, and some unfortunate typos (including the spelling of my own name in the Bibliography!).  

To coincide with this exhibition, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is showcasing a selection of works from its unrivalled holding of drawings by Allan Ramsay (from 19 October 2013 to 9 February 2014).

The book that accompanies the Hunterian exhibition, Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment  by Mungo Campbell with Anne Dulau, and essays by Melanie Buntin, Rhona Brown, John Bonehill and Rica Jones, is published by Prestel, 2013. 128 pp. 85 colour illus. ISBN: 978-3-7913-4878-0


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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