Allan Ramsay
Scottish portrait painter



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Allan Ramsay
Scottish portrait painter
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Birth Date

October 13, 1713

Death Date

August 10, 1784

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A dashing Scottish artist with a tragic past.  A golden-haired maiden from an ancient highland clan.  A clandestine elopement, and a family feud.  Is it an episode of Outlander?  A romance by Sir Walter Scott?  Nope.  Just another day in the life of Allan Ramsay.

Edinburgh native Ramsay, son of a famous Scottish poet and enlightenment thinker (also named Allan Ramsay), is said to be the first great Scottish artist, equal to his English contemporary Sir Joshua Reynolds, and even better at painting women.  He was active in Scotland, London, but also studied, traveled and worked extensively in Italy.

His first wife was Anne Bayne, who died in childbirth early in their marriage.  All three of their babies died in childhood.  But Ramsay was destined for one of art history’s great love stories.  He fell for one of his pupils, the beautiful Margaret Lindsay, daughter of baronet Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick and Amelia Murray of the noble Clan Murray.  They eloped without consent, and  Margaret’s parents were furious that she had run away with a lowly artist, though Ramsay wrote a heartfelt letter to her father promising to provide for her, and proclaiming he had no motive but, “my love for your Daughter, who, I am sensible is entitled to much more than ever I shall have to bestow upon her.” (aw, sigh!).  Sir Alexander and Lady Amelia were unimpressed, and never spoke to the couple again.

Margaret’s brother Sir John Lindsay, however, remained sympathetic to the persecuted couple, perhaps as a result of his own experiences.  Sir John knew a thing or two about forbidden passion.  While an officer in the Royal Navy, John fathered a biracial child by a captive African woman he had rescued from a Spanish slave galley.  Their daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the subject of a famous portrait by Ramsay’s contemporary Johann Zoffany, and a Hollywood film.

Despite the obstacles before them, Allan and Margaret had a long and happy marriage, raising three children to adulthood.  Furthermore, Ramsay was true to his word that he would provide for Margaret.  He became official portrait painter to King George III, creating the most iconic image of one of England’s most notorious Kings.  

His portraits of George’s wife Queen Charlotte are a source of some controversy.  Charlotte was criticized by the racist beauty standards of the time for having “mulatto” features.  There is speculation (but little evidence) that she may have been part black.  In either case, as an abolitionist, Ramsay may have accentuated Charlotte’s supposedly “African” characteristics for propaganda purposes, knowing that copies of his portraits would be circulated in the slaveholding American and Caribbean colonies.

Later in life, Ramsay gave up painting, having injured his arm after falling off a ladder, and depressed by the death of his beloved Margaret.  He threw himself into literature and philosophy instead, becoming (like his father) a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Allan Ramsay (artist)

Allan Ramsay (13 October 1713 – 10 August 1784) was a prominent Scottish portrait-painter.

Life and career

Allan Ramsay was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the eldest son of Allan Ramsay, poet and author of The Gentle Shepherd. From the age of twenty he studied in London under the Swedish painter Hans Hysing, and at the St. Martin's Lane Academy; leaving in 1736 for Rome and Naples, where he worked for three years under Francesco Solimena and Imperiali (Francesco Fernandi).

On his return in 1738 to the British Isles, he first settled in Edinburgh, attracting attention by his head of Duncan Forbes of Culloden and his full-length portrait of the Duke of Argyll, later used on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes. He later moved to London, where he was employed by the Duke of Bridgewater.

His pleasant manners and varied culture, not less than his artistic skill, contributed to render him popular. His only serious competitor was Thomas Hudson, with whom he shared a drapery painter, Joseph van Aken.

In 1739 he married his first wife, Anne Bayne, the daughter of Alexander Bayne of Rires (c. 1684–1737), and Mary Carstairs (1695?–1759). Anne died on 4 February 1743, giving birth to their 3rd child; none of their children reached adulthood.

One of his drawing pupils was Margaret Lindsay, eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick and Amelia Murray (granddaughter to David Murray, 5th Viscount of Stormont and sister to the naval officer John Lindsay). He later eloped with her and on 1 March 1752 they married in the Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh; her father never forgave her for marrying an artist. Ramsay already had to maintain a daughter from his previous marriage and his two surviving sisters, but told Sir Alexander that he could provide Margaret with an annual income of £100. He said it would increase ‘as my affairs increase, and I thank God, they are in a way of increasing’ and that his only motive for the marriage was ‘my love for your Daughter, who, I am sensible, is entitled to much more than ever I shall have to bestow upon her’. Three children survived from their long and happy marriage, Amelia (1755–1813), Charlotte (1758–1818?), and John (1768–1845).

Ramsay and his new wife spent 1754 to 1757 together in Italy, going to Rome, Florence, Naples and Tivoli, researching, painting and drawing old masters, antiquities and archaeological sites. He earned income painting Grand Tourists' portraits. This and other trips to Italy involved more literary and antiquarian research than art. After their return, Ramsay in 1761 was appointed to succeed John Shackelton as Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III, beating Hudson to the post. The king commissioned so many royal portraits to be given to ambassadors and colonial governors, that Ramsay used the services of numerous assistants—of whom David Martin and Philip Reinagle are the best known.

He gave up painting in about 1770 to concentrate on literary pursuits. His health was shattered by an accidental dislocation of the right arm and his second wife's death in 1782. With unflinching pertinacity, he struggled until he had completed a likeness of the king upon which he was engaged at the time, and then started for his beloved Italy. He left a series of 50 royal portraits to be completed by his assistant Reinagle. For several years he lingered in the south, his constitution finally broken. He died at Dover on 10 August 1784.

Ramsay was a friend of Samuel Johnson's, who said of him, 'I love Ramsay. You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance, than in Ramsay's.'

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Allan Ramsay (artist).