Allan Ramsay - Jacobite or Royalist?

13th October 2019
The life of Scottish painter Allan Ramsay, who was born on this day in 1713, is a worthy enough subject for celebration not just for the many wonderful portraits he produced of Georgian men and women, but also for being someone who lived through one of the most interesting and turbulent times in British history.

It was a period of considerable tension between England and Scotland, culminating in the 2nd Jacobite rebellion of 1745. And many of those who sat for Ramsay during his long and distinguished career were intimately involved in the unrest on both sides of the border.
portrait Geogian era man in bown coat, half profile
A self-portrait of the artist, Allan Ramsay, made around 1738. (National Portrait Gallery).
Just a few years later, his homeland would be torn apart when the Stuart claimant to the English throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, would commence his campaign to oust the Hanovarian George II.

Edinburgh, London and Rome

Ramsay was born in Scotland's capital Edinburgh and into a family in which the spirit of the Enlightenment was celebrated through discourse, creativity and fresh ideas. His father was a successful poet, playwright and publisher and might also have inspired his son with a strong sense of history and patriotic pride.

These two strands of thought (the rational, academic world of the Enlightenment versus the older, more Romantic feelings of the Highland Scots) were somewhat at odds to each other. And it is to Ramsay's credit that he managed to somehow accommodate the two during a long and successful career.

Well educated and intelligent, as a youngster Ramsay attended the new Academy of St Luke in Edinburgh before moving south to London to commence formal studies in art and painting.

A little later, in 1736, he extended his experiences by embarking on the Grand Tour of Italy (an undertaking widely expected of young men of the time). This included Naples and Rome, and he remained there for over two years, studying his trade under various masters. He returned to Edinburgh in 1738 and, a year later, married his first wife Anne Bayne. Sadly it was a marriage marred by tragedy, with Anne's early death in 1743 at the birth of their 3rd child.
portrait of 18th century young woman
The artist's first wife, Anne Bayne, c1739. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery).
Anne's family were very much part of the Scottish Enlightenment, her father being Professor of Municipal Law at Edinburgh University.
georgian era woman with dark hair
Portrait of Miss Craigie, 1741. Ramsay was a master at the delicate rendering of fabrics, silks and satins. He was also brilliant, I think, at capturing the character and self-confidence of many of his female subjects. This is a very fine example. (Denver Art Museum).

Second marriage

In time, Ramsay found happiness and married again - to Margaret Lindsay who had been a student of his. Their engagement was not without its difficulties, however. An elopement was necessary due to opposition from Margaret’s father. They were wed in March of 1752.

Margaret's family, well-to-do and connected to the clans Lindsay and Murray, were very much illustrative of the divisions and mixed political loyalties of the times. They were in part pro-Jacobite in instinct, yet had among them a staunch Hanoverian (English royal family) supporter in William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. And although the decisive battle of Culloden in 1746, during which the Jacobite rebellion had been defeated by the English, had come and gone by the time of their marriage, the divisions in society remained. There was a firm conviction among many on both sides of the border that the Bonnie Prince and his soldiers would return.
young woman in lace shawl, Georgian-era fashion, side aspect, head turning
Allan Ramsay's second wife Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, 1758. (Scottish National Gallery). Note how Margaret has taken a white rose from the vase, a symbol of Jacobite identity.
Ramsay insistence in his correspondence with the family that he had married Margaret for love rather than money or prestige was true. And as it often turns out, theirs was to be a fulfilling and highly successful union. They had two daughters and a son who all reached adulthood, and they also travelled and studied together – with the artist returning to Italy once again where he and Margaret could enjoy their shared love and study of classical art.

The genius of portraiture or the jobbing artist?

Ramsay, it might be said, tended to paint a great number of rather dull society portraits, including numerous nobles, lawyers and military men. It paid the bills. And he employed a team of assistants at times to help fulfil the workload. But some of his most celebrated works that have endured in the popular imagination were inspired by the heart: seen in those tender portraits of his wives for example (pictured above) - or in the perceptive gaze of some of the philosophers and writers of the age. Perhaps the most notable are his famous Romantic figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his unlikely saviour after the battle of Culloden, Flora Macdonald.
portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie in silk robes and wig
Portrait of the Bonnie Prince himself, Charles Edward Stuart from the year of the Jacobite occupation of the Scottish capital, 1745. Charles was about to embark on his invasion of England and there was no time to lose - or, as letter at the time from his valet to the artist declared: “Sir, you are desired to come to the Palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’ picture. So I expect you’ll wait no further call. I am, your most humble servant, John Stuart, Holyrood House 26th of October 1745.
young woman in Scottish Highland dress
Ramsay's incisive and beautiful portrait of Flora Macdonald, 1749.
Legend and fact combine in the tale of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his escape after the battle of Culloden. He was disguised and spirited away to safety on the Isle of Skye and concealed for some months by this brave and resourceful lady at great personal risk to herself. (Ashmolean Museum).
These have become portraits almost as famous as those depicted in them. They appear regularly in history books and documentary footage. Here, for instance, is another familiar visage - the superb portrayal of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-76).
middle-aged Georgian man in bright red tunic and wig
Ramsay's outstanding portrait of the philosopher David Hume, 1766. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery). Ramsay counted Hume among his friends and together they were founder members of a distinguished debating society in Edinburgh.

And, then by way of contrast, a brooding and intense rendition of the restless and influential French Romantic philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778).


antique looking gentleman in dark fur-lined robes
French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, painted in 1766. (Scottish National Gallery).

Royal Patronage

When not travelling, Ramsay alternated his working time between London and Edinburgh, establishing a highly successful portrait business. And in 1760 he was appointed as official painter to King George III - rising to 'Painter-in-Ordinary' in 1767 - a highly prestigious position. Any former Jacobite sympathies were presumable well concealed or abandoned by then. He had become immensely successful.

Over the next two decades he also developed a reputation in academic circles as a fine conversationalist and writer of essays. He corresponded with the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau (see portrait above), and this more literary aspect of his life was one that continued to flourish in the wake of an injury to his right arm in 1773 that brought his painting career to an abrupt end.
middle-aged Georgian-era man in cravat, looking askance
Self-portrait of Ramsay from the year 1756. (Scottish National Gallery)
I like Ramsay's story. In the faces of those he portrayed so long ago we can catch a glimpse of the optimism and courage of those whose lives were coming to be inspired not by aggression and division but by reason and discourse. They are faces that suggest that rationality and intelligence can overcome all manner of prejudices and obstacles. And that is a good message.

The final years

In 1782 Ramsay's fortunes took a further turn for the worse when his wife Margaret died. He followed her to the grave just two years later at the age of 70. He was greatly mourned. The writer Samuel Johnson, compiler of one of the earliest and most influential dictionaries of the English language, said of him: 'You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance …'

Quite an epitaph.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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