History has not been kind to the great Scottish portrait painter Horace Walpole once described as ‘all delicacy’, but Andrew Gibbon Williams believes that a major show at the Edinburgh and London Portrait Galleries will revive Ramsay’s reputation.
When Allan Ramsay died in 1784. his obituarists referred in glowing terms to his literary achievements. Over the years the great man had held forth on a variety of mainly political subjects. ranging from the need to clamp down on mob violence to the desirability of taking a heavier hand with the American revolutionaries. Had he been around today he would no doubt have been busy advocating military aid to the present regime in South Africa.
The peculiar thing was that all mention of his stature as an artist was ommitted. Although Ramsay had painted very little since damaging his painting arm ten years previously he was. nevertheless. still Painter in Ordinary to King George III; his artistic career had been one continuous success story. he had been prolific. and contemporaries such as Horace Walpole had competed to outdo one another in their praise of him.
One reason for this extraordinary posthumous slight was that by the 17805 the star of the first president of the Royal Academy. Sir Joshua Reynolds. was firmly in the ascendent and. in comparison. Ramsay‘s less beefy kind of portraiture was rococo old hat. Sadly. the demoting of Ramsay has continued into modern times.
Now. however. a spectacular exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has resurrected Ramsay’s genius. When the exhibition transfers to the gallery‘s sister establishment off Trafalgar Square in October. those art historians who have habitually scoffed at the Scot who became the greatest artist of the Age of Reason will have something to put in their
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pipes and smoke.
Ramsay gloried in the prettiness of the opposite sex. in the days when it was content to play its traditional supplementary role. Margaret Ramsay. the high-born lady with whom the artist eloped. has become an icon ofdemure. 18th century femininity. with her lace fichu and frothy cuffs. Martha. Countess of Elgin. is literally as pretty as a picture. her black mufﬂer setting off the ruched pink satin of her bodice. Even Queen Charlotte. a stub-featured frau ifever there was one. has been rendered becoming by the cunning device of a delicately dangled fan.
Ramsay's natural-looking depictions of these ladies are the overwhelming joy ofthis exhibition. yet they are far from being the whole story. Like the majority ofsuccessful artists of his generation. Ramsay took off for Rome at an early stage of
Allah Ramsay’s portrait of his wile. Margaret.
technique picked up from Solimena in Naples to describe his own ruggedly handsome Scottish features. And it is even more admirably developed in the important full-length portrait of his supporter Richard Mead. This is the Italian Grand Manner (as it was called), introduced into British art for the very first time. long before it was promoted by Reynolds in his famous Discourses. In comparison. Hogarth‘s analogous. much acclaimed portrait ofThomas Xoram looks domestic and insubstantial.
There is a fair selection of the
9 official portraiture eventually
commissioned from Ramsay as a result of these bold. early successes.
his career. apprenticed himself to the "
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and absorbed the dynamic. polished.
late-Baroque style which was in vogue there in the late 1730s. The sophistication of the way in which he applied it upon his return to England is one of the salient features of this show.
It is evident in the famous self-portrait. for example. where Ramsay— still only in his mid-twenties — uses the ﬂashy
Apart from Van Dyck. very few painters have ever succeeded in their pictures ofthe monarch. yet Ramsay’s King George III and Queen Charlotte are technical tours deforce which at the same time convey something of the sitters‘ personalities. The finest. however. is a lyrical treatment ofthe King‘s mother, Princess Augusta. a picture that achieves its seductive effect through the contrast between the subject’s strength ofcharacter and the sartorial confection in which she chose to pose for the artist.
Allan Ramsay 1713—1784, Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 27 Sept.
I Miro Sculptures Britain‘s largest ever exhibition of the Catalan artist‘s brilliantly crazy constructions. mostly on the theme of women. birds and stars. ofcourse.
Miro Sculptures, Royal Scottish Academy, unti120 Sept. £3 (£1.50). I Andy Goldsworthy The remarkable artist who makes sculptures out of ice and leaves returns to Edinburgh after his 1990 show with a spectacular series of large-scale ice and snow ‘drawings‘.
Andy Goldsworthy: Ice and Snow Drawings, and The Throws, Fruitmarket Gallery. 15 Aug—l2 Sept, free.
I Duane Michals New York urban fairy tales. dwelling on love and longing. childhood and death. from one ofAmerica's leading contemporary photographers. Duane Michals: Poetry and Tales. Portfolio Gallery, 15 Aug—12 Sept. £1.
I The Scottish Gallery Scotland's oldest commercial gallery celebrates 150 years ofkeeping artistic chins above water. Just about all of Scotland‘s greatest artists have trouped through their hallowed gates -— the best are represented here. The First I 50 Years, Scottish Gallery. until9Sept. free.
I The Art of Will McLean Retrospective exhibition ofone of Scotland‘s best contemporary artists. whose work is often inspired by the Highlands or Scottish seascapes.
Symbols ofSurvival: the Art of Will Maclean, Talbot Rice Gallery. free.
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