Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Allan Ramsay, Junior


Allan Ramsay, the author of the “Gentle Shepherd,”—“the best pastoral that had ever been written,” said Mr. Boswell, whose judgments upon poetry, however, are not final, Allan Ramsay, the poet, father of Allan Ramsay, principal painter to King George the Third, claimed descent from the noble house of Dalhousie; he was the great grandson of the laird of Cockpen. His claim was admitted by the contemporary earl, who ever took pride in recognising, as a relative, the “restorer of Scottish national poetry.” Certainly the poetical branch of the family tree had been in some danger of being lost altogether—the clouds of obscurity had so gathered round it—the sunshine of good fortune had so ceased to play upon it. The laird’s children appear to have been of the humblest class, dwelling in a poor hamlet on the banks of the Glangomar, a tributary of the Clyde among the hills between Clydesdale and Annandale. The father of the Gentle Shepherd is said to have been a workman in Lord Hopetoun’s lead-mines, and the Gentle Shepherd himself, as a child, was employed as a washer of ore. Early in the last century he was in Edinburgh, a barber’s apprentice. In 1729 he had published his comic pastoral, and was then in a bookseller’s shop in the Luckenbooths. Here he used to amuse Gay, famous for his Newgate pastoral, with pointing out the chief characters and literati of the city as they met daily in the forenoon at the Cross, according to custom. Here Gay first read the “Gentle Shepherd,” and studied the Scottish dialect, so that, on his return to England, he was able to explain to Pope the peculiar merits of the poem. And the poets, Gay and Ramsay, spent much time and emptied many glasses together at a twopenny ale-house opposite Queensbury House, kept by one Janet Hall, called more frequently Janet Ha’.

It was at Edinburgh that Allan Ramsay, junior, was born, the eldest of seven children, in the year 1713, or in 1709, as some say. Late in life he was fond of understating his age as people somehow will do:

“I am old enough,” he said once, with the air of making a very frank avowal, “I am old enough to have been a contemporary of Pope.” Which was not remarkable, considering that Pope did not die until 1744, when Mr. Ramsay must have been at least thirty-one.

He had considerable talent for art. He began to sketch at twelve. But his father was poor with a large family to support,—it was not possible to afford much of an education to the young artist. He had to develop his abilities as he best could. In 1736, when he was probably twenty-three, the father wrote of him thus simply and tenderly: “My son Allan has been pursuing his 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 am sweer” (i. e., loath) “to part with him, but canna stem the current which flows from the advice of his patrons and his own inclinations.” This letter was addressed to one John Smybert, also a self-taught artist. He had commenced in Edinburgh as a house-painter, and, growing ambitious, found himself after a time in London, choosing between starvation and the decoration of grand coach-panels in Long Acre factories. In 1728 he settled in Boston, and shares with John Watson, another Scotchman, who had preceded him some years, the honour of founded painting as an art—from a European point of view—in the New World.

Those who had hesitated in their patronage of the poet were not disinclined to aid the painter. I is much less difficult a matter to have one’s portrait painted than to be able to appreciate a poem. Means were forthcoming to enable the art-student to quit Edinburgh in 1736 for Rome. He remained there during three years, receiving instruction from Francesco Solimena, called also l’Abate Ciccio, and one Imperiali, an artist of less fame. Of both it may be said, however, that they did little enough to stay the downfall of Italian art.

On the return of Allan Ramsay, junior, to Scotland, we learn little more of him than that he painted portraits of Duncan Forbes, of his own sister, Miss Janet Ramsay, and Archibald, Duke of Argyle, in his robes as Lord of Session; finally he removed to London.

He was so fortunate as to find many valuable friends. The Earl of Bridgewater was an early patron, followed by Lord Bute, whose powerful position at court enabled him to introduce the painter to the heir-apparent of the crown, Frederick, Prince of Wales. Two portraits of His Royal Highness were commanded, full-length, and one remarkable for being in profile. Still greater fame accrued to him, however, for his portrait of Lord Bute, who was said to have had the handsomest leg in England. His lordship was conscious of his advantage, and, during the sitting to Ramsay for his whole length portrait, engraved by Ryland, was careful to hold up his robes considerably above his right knee, so that his well-formed limbs should be thoroughly well exhibited. While, as though to direct the attention of the spectator, with the forefinger of his right hand he pointed down to his leg, and in this position remained for an hour. The painter availed himself to the full of the opportunity, and humoured the minister to the top of his bent. The picture was a genuine triumph. Reynolds, never popular at court, grew jealous of his rival’s success, and alarmed lest it should lead to extraordinary advancement. When the Marquis of Rockingham was posed before Sir Joshua for the full-length picture, engraved by Fisher, the nobleman asked the painter if he had not given a strut to the left leg. “My lord,” replied Sir Joshua with a smile, “I wish to show a leg with Ramsay’s Lord Bute.”

The painter prospered steadily, and, of course, was well abused; but success is always sure to bring with it envy and satire. Mr. William Hogarth, who objected strongly to competitors, sought to jest down the advancing Scotchman with a feeble pun about a Ram’s eye! William was very much less clever when he had a pen in his hand than when he was wielding a brush or an etching-needle.

The Reverend Charles Churchill, very angry with North Britons, wrote sneering lines in the “Prophecy of Famine:”—

Thence came the Ramsays men of worthy note,
Of whom one paints as well as t’other wrote.

By-and-by these two critics forgot Ramsay, and were busy with each other, bandying abuse and interchanging mud. The court painter heeded little their comments. He was putting money in his purse. There were always sitters in his studio: he had as much work as he could do, while yet he found time for self-cultivation. He must have possessed an active restless mind. He was not content with being merely a clever, hard-working, money-making painter. Even at Rome he had studied other things beside art. As Mr. Fuseli states magniloquently, after his manner, “he was smit with the love of classic lore, and desired to trace, on dubious vestiges, the haunts of ancient genius and learning.” He made himself a good Latin, French, and Italian scholar; indeed, he is said to have mastered most of the modern European languages, with the exception of Russian. His German he found of no slight service to him in the court of the Guelphs. Later in life he studied Greek, and acquitted himself as a commendable scholar.

Artists, less accomplished, were inclined to charge him with being above his business, and more anxious to be accounted a person of taste and learning than to be valued as a painter. Just as Congreve disclaimed the character of a poet, declaring he had written plays but for pastime, and begged he might be considered merely as a gentleman. There was no one to say to Ramsay, however, as Voltaire—nothing, if not literary—said to Congreve, “If you had been merely a gentleman, I should not have come to see you.” On the contrary, men applauded Ramsay for qualities quite apart from professional merits.

“I love Ramsay,” said Samuel Johnson to his biographer. “You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance than in Ramsay’s.”

Perhaps it may be noted that this remark of the Doctor’s upon his friend follows curiously close upon his satisfactory comment upon an entertainment at the house of the painter.

“Well, sir, Ramsay gave us a splendid dinner!”

“What I admire in Ramsay,” says Mr. Boswell, “is his continuing to be so young!”

Johnson concedes: “Why, yes, sir, it is to be admired. I value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation. I am now sixty-eight, and I have no more of it than at twenty-eight.” And the good Doctor runs on rather garrulously, it must be owned, ending with—“I think myself a very polite man!”

It was to Mr. Ramsay’s house—No. 67, Harley Street—that Mr. Boswell sent a letter for his friend: “My dear sir,—I am in great pain with an inflamed foot” (why not say plainly “the gout,” Mr. Boswell?) “and obliged to keep my bed, so am prevented from having the pleasure to dine at Mr. Ramsay’s to-day, which is very hard, and my spirits are sadly sunk. Will you be so friendly as to come and sit an hour with me in the evening?”

And it was from Ramsay’s house the kind old man sent his rather stiff reply: “Mr. Johnson laments the absence of Mr. Boswell, and will come to him.”

After dinner the Doctor goes round to the invalid, laid up in General Paoli’s house in South Audley Street, and brings with him Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom it is pleasant to find is a frequent guest at his great rival’s hospitable board.

Ramsay prospers—his reputation increases—he is largely employed, not only in portraiture, but in decorating walls and ceilings. He has a staff of workmen under him. A second time he visits Rome, making a stay of some months; and journeys to Edinburgh, residing there long enough to establish, in 1754, “The Select Society.” He grows wealthy, too. Poor Allan Ramsay senior dies much in debt in 1757; the painter takes upon himself his father’s liabilities, and pensions his unmarried sister, Janet Ramsay, who survived to 1804. He is possessed, it is said, of an independent fortune to the amount of 40,000l.; and this before the accession of King George the Third, and his extraordinary patronage of the painter.

The office of painter to the crown was one of early date. In 1550 Antonio More was painter to Queen Mary. For his portrait of the Queen sent to her intended husband, Philip, he was rewarded with one hundred pounds, a gold chain, and a salary of one hundred pounds a-quarter as court-painter to their majesties. There is some obscurity about the appointments of painters to the king during the reign of George the Second. Jervas was succeeded by Kent, who died in 1748. Shackleton succeeded Kent. Yet it is probable that the king had more than one painter at the same time. For we find Hogarth, who is said to have succeeded his brother-in-law, John Thornhill, the son of Sir James, appointed in 1757, while Mr. Shackleton did not die until 1767, when, as Mr. Cunningham relates the story of the London studios, he died of a broken heart on learning that Ramsay was appointed in his stead. This was certainly about the date of Ramsay’s appointment to be painter to the king. And now there grew to be quite a rage for portraits by Ramsay—there was a run upon him as though he had been a sinking bank. He was compelled to call in the aid of all sorts of people, painting the heads only of his sitters with his own hand; and at last abandoning even much of that superior work to his favourite pupil, Philip Reinagle. So that in many of Ramsay’s pictures there is probably but a very few strokes of Ramsay’s brush. The names of certain of his assistants have been recorded. Mrs. Black, “a lady of less talent than good taste.” Vandyck, a Dutchman, allied more in name than in talent with him of the days of Charles the First. Eikart, a German, clever at draperies. Roth, another German, who aided in the subordinate parts of the work. Vesperis, an Italian, who was employed occasionally to paint fruits and flowers. And Davie Martin, a Scotchman, a favourite draughtsman and helper, and conscientious servant. Mr. Reinagle probably furnished Mr. Cunningham with these particulars. It will be noted that the English artist’s employment of foreign mercenaries was considerable. This must have been either from the fact of such assistance being procurable at a cheaper rate, or that the old notion still prevailed as to the necessity of looking abroad for art-talent.

Ramsay succeeded at court. He was made of more yielding materials than Reynolds; assumed more the airs of a courtier—humoured the king. Perhaps like Sir Pertinax he had a theory upon the successful results of “booing and booing.” He never contradicted; always smiled acquiescence; listened complacently to the most absurd opinions upon art of his royal master. Reynolds was bent upon asserting the dignity of his profession. He did not scruple to conceal his appreciation of the fact that as a painter at any rate he was the sovereign’s superior—he would be, to use a popular phrase, “cock on his own dunghill.” When the painter’s friends spoke on the subject to Johnson, he said stoutly “That the neglect could never prejudice him: but it would reflect eternal disgrace on the king not to have employed Sir Joshua.” But Reynolds received only one royal commission: to paint the king and queen, whole-lengths, for the council-room of the Royal Academy, “two of the finest portraits in the world,” as Northcote declared. The king, who was an early riser, sat at ten in the morning. The entry in Reynolds’s pocket-book is “Friday, May 21 (1779), at 10—the king.” The queen’s name does not occur until December. The king, who was near-sighted, and looked close at a picture, always complained that Reynolds’s paintings were rough and unfinished. But Reynolds heeded not. Be sure Ramsay and West were careful to paint smoothly enough after that. Northcote said that the balance of greatness preponderated on the side of the subject, and the king was annoyed at perceiving it; and disliked extremely the ease and independence of manner of Reynolds—always courteous, yet always unembarrassed—proceeding with his likenesses as though he were copying marble statues. “Do not suppose,” adds his pupil, “that he was ignorant of the value of royal favour. No. Reynolds had a thorough knowledge of the world, he would have gladly possessed it, but the price would have cost him too much.”

The court-painter had soon enough to do, for the king had a habit of presenting portraits of himself and his queen to all his ambassadors and colonial governors. He sat, too, for his coronation portrait, as it was called, in Buckingham Palace. The bland, obsequious, well-informed Ramsay became a great favourite. He always gave way to the king—would have sacrificed his art to his advancement any day. And he was almost the only person about the court, except the servants, who could speak German, and the queen was especially fond of chatting with him in her native language. Their majesties soon gave over being dignified. Indeed, few persons were more prone to forget their grandeur, although they did not like anybody else to do so. With his own hands the king would help West to place his pictures in position on the easel. The queen—plain, snuff-taking, her face painted like a mask, and her eyes rolling like an automaton, as eyewitnesses have described her later in life—called on Mrs. Garrick one day at Hampton Court, and found the widow of the Roscius very busy peeling onions for pickling. “The queen, however, would not suffer her to stir, but commanded a knife to be brought, observing that she would peel an onion with her, and actually sat down in the most condescending manner and peeled onions.” The king, interrupting his sittings to dine off his favourite boiled mutton and turnips, would make Ramsay bring easel and canvas into the dining-room, so that they might continue their conversation during the royal meal. When the king had finished, he would rise and say, “Now, Ramsay, sit down in my place and take your dinner.” When he was engaged on his first portrait of the queen, it is said that all the crown jewels and the regalia were sent to him. The painter observed that jewels and gold of so great a value deserved a guard, and accordingly sentinels were posted day and night in front and rear of his house. His studio was composed of a set of rooms and haylofts in the mews at the back of Harley Street, all thrown into one long gallery.

He kept an open house and a liberal table, but more it would seem for his friends’ pleasure than his own; for though fond of delicate eating, and as great a consumer of tea as Dr. Johnson, he had little taste for stronger potations, and we are told that “even the smell of a bottle of claret was too much for him.” The Doctor entertained different opinions: he spoke with contempt of claret. “A man would be drowned by it before it made him drunk,” adding, “Poor stuff! No, sir, claret is the liquor for boys: port for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy!” Most toper sentiments! But Ramsay did not stint his guests, and these were constantly of a noble order. Lord Bute, the Duke of Newcastle, Lord Bath, Lord Chesterfield, and the Duke of Richmond were often at the painter’s table, discussing all sorts of political questions with him. Every man was a politician in those days, especially after dinner. But Ramsay was not content to be simply a talker upon the topics of the day—he became also a writer. Many clever papers by him upon history, politics, and criticism were published at various times, under the signature “Investigator,” and were subsequently reprinted and collected into a volume. Upon the question which had agitated London for some months, as to the truth of the charge brought against the gipsy woman Mary Squire, of aiding in the abduction of the servant girl Elizabeth Canning, Ramsay wrote an ingenious pamphlet. The same subject had also employed the pen of no less a person than Henry Fielding. Ramsay corresponded with Voltaire and Rousseau, both of whom he visited. His letters, we are told, were elegant and witty. The painter to the king was a man of society.

A third time he visits Rome, accompanied on this occasion by his son, afterwards to rise to distinction in the army. He employed himself, however, more as a savant than an artist—in examining and copying the Greek and Latin inscriptions in the Vatican. The President of the Roman Academy introduced the painter to the School of Art, and was rather pompous about the works of his students. Ramsay’s national pride was piqued. “I will show you,” he said, “how we draw in England.” He wrote to his Scotch assistant, Davie Martin, to pack up some drawings and journey at once to Rome. On his arrival, Ramsay arranged his drawings, and then invited the President and his scholars to the exhibition. The king’s painter was always fond of declaring that it was the proudest moment of his life, “for,” he said, “the Italians were confounded and overcome, and British skill triumphant!” Perhaps the Italian account of the transaction, could we obtain it, might not exactly tally with the king’s painter’s.

Soon Ramsay was again in England resuming his prosperous practice. Then occurred the accident which hindered all further pursuit of his art. Reading an account of a calamitous fire, he was so impressed with the idea of showing his household and pupils the proper mode of effecting their escape, in the event of such an accident befalling his own house, that he ascended with them to the top storey, and pushing a ladder through the loft door, mounted quickly, saying: “Now I am safe—I can get to the roofs of the adjoining houses.” As he turned to descend he missed his step and fell, dislocating his right arm severely. At this time he was engaged upon the portrait of the king for the Excise-office. With extraordinary courage he managed to finish the picture, working most painfully, and supporting as he best could his right arm with his left. He declared it to be the finest portrait he had ever painted; and his friends echoed his opinion. But it was the last he was ever to put his hand to.

His constitution yielded; his spirits left him; his shoulder gave him great pain; his nights were sleepless. The painter to King George III. was evidently sinking. Yet he lingered for some years—a shattered invalid. Again he visited Rome, leaving his pupil Reinagle to complete his long list of royal commissions. Reinagle’s style was so admirably imitative of his master’s, that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. The pupil was instructed to complete fifty pairs of kings and queens at ten guineas each! The task seemed endless, and was six years in hand. Midway, wearied to death with the undertaking, Reinagle wrote to complain that the price was not sufficient. Ramsay trebled it; but the pupil was wont to confess afterwards that he looked back with a sort of horror at his labours in connection with the royal portraits.

The court-painter never recovered his lost health. He wrote from Italy to many of his friends—the first men of the day, both in France and England. Then came the home-sickness, which so often precedes dissolution. In the summer of 1784 he set out on his journey to England, hoping to reach it by short and easy stages. He reached Paris with difficulty: the fatigue brought on a low fever he had not the strength to support. He died on the 10th of August, at Dover, in the 71st year of his age.

“Poor Ramsay:” so Johnson wrote touchingly to Reynolds. “On which side soever I turn, mortality presents its formidable frown. I left three old friends at Lichfield when I was last there, and now I found them all dead. I no sooner lost sight of dear Allan than I am told that I shall see him no more! That we must all die, we all know. I wish I had sooner remembered it. Do not think me intrusive or importunate if I now call, dear sir, on you, to remember it!”

A handsome, acute, accomplished gentleman, outstripping all the painters of his age in the extent of his learning and the variety of his knowledge—an artist of delicacy and taste, rather than of energy and vigour—pale in colour and placid in expression, yet always graceful and refined—there was a charm about his works that his contemporaries thoroughly understood, though they could not always themselves attain it. Northcote gave a close and clever criticism on the king’s painter in this wise:—“Sir Joshua used to say that he was the most sensible among all the painters of his time; but he has left little to show it. His manner was dry and timid. He stopped short in the middle of his work because he knew exactly how much it wanted. Now and then we find hints and sketches, which show what he might have done if his hand had been equal to his conceptions. I have seen a picture of his of the Queen soon after she was married—a profile, and slightly done: but it was a paragon of elegance. She had a fan in her hand. Lord, how she held that fan! It was weak in execution and ordinary in features—all I can say of it is, that it was the farthest possible removed from everything like vulgarity. A professor might despise it, but in the mental part I have never seen anything of Vandyke’s equal to it. I could have looked at it for ever. I don’t know where it is now: but I saw enough in it to convince me that Sir Joshua was right in what he said of Ramsay’s great superiority. I should find it difficult to produce anything of Sir Joshua’s that conveys an idea of more grace and delicacy. Reynolds would have finished it better; the other was afraid of spoiling what he had done, and so left it a mere outline. He was frightened before he was hurt.” This was high praise of the king’s painter, coming from his rival’s pupil.

Dutton Cook.