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Great Scot! Stephen Lloyd enjoys a tightly focused exhibition marking the tercentenary of the birth of the Scottish portraitist Allan Ramsay.

Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment

13 September-5 January 2014

Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Catalogue by Mungo Campbell (ed.)

ISBN: 9783791348780 (hardback), 35 [pounds sterling] (Prestel)

Thanks to the scholarship of Alastair Smart, the portraitist Allan Ramsay (1713-84) and his later compatriot Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) are now well understood to be Scotland's principal exponents of Enlightenment values in the artistic sphere. Raeburn produced a substantial oeuvre during the Regency period that combined common-sense naturalism with a powerful interpretation of values from the age of sentiment and mercantilism. But Ramsay--with his more limited artistic and far less public production--can now be seen as a more cosmopolitan and European figure. He immersed himself as an equal into the enlightened conversations of intellectual society, whether in Edinburgh, London, Paris or Rome, where in the mid 1750s he executed his searching self-portrait in pastel and watercolour (Fig. 1).

Ramsay's career, like that of Raeburn, is a clear manifestation of the flourishing society and aspirant bourgeois elites of his home town of Edinburgh, developments epitomised by debating clubs and the creation of the neoclassical New Town. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to realise that the main celebration to mark the tercentenary of the artist's birth is being held in postindustrial Glasgow, which in the t8th century was a booming transatlantic port for the colonial trade in American tobacco and Caribbean sugar.

However, it is highly appropriate that this intelligent and tightly focused show is being held in the Hunterian Art Gallery, a jewel in the crown of Glasgow University, which is now beginning to flourish again under the leadership of director David Gaimster. The fine art collection, housed in the intractable concrete edifice built in the 1970s, holds at its heart a group of outstanding paintings--including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Chardin--assembled by Dr William Hunter for the remarkably encyclopedic collection that he would bequeath to Glasgow University in 1783. One of this trading city's greatest Enlightenment figures, Hunter was a celebrated surgeon, anatomist and obstetrician, who taught at the Royal Academy and held favour at the Hanoverian court. In 1764-65, he was portrayed by Ramsay in one of the artist's most sensitively poised exercises in the investigation of character and intellect (Fig. 2).

As the current exhibition makes clear, ably supported by the refreshingly written and handsomely designed publication, Allan Ramsay's rise to artistic and social preeminence was grounded in the support received from family connections and patronage in both of Scotland's main cities. In a persuasive essay, Melanie Buntin and Rhona Brown argue that Ramsay's aspirations to be a cultivated artist and man of taste were rooted in the poetic and literary ambitions of his father, Allan Ramsay senior (1684-1758), who ran an influential bookselling business in Edinburgh. After artistic training in Edinburgh and London, and a formative period studying in artistic studios in Rome under Francesco Fernandi ('Imperiali') and then in Naples with Francesco Solimena, Ramsay returned to Britain during the late 1730s to establish himself as the leading portraitist in London. As the conservator Rica Jones notes in her perceptive essay on the artist's technique, Ramsay wrote to his Scottish friend Alexander Cunyngham in April 1740 that 'I have put all your Van Loos and Soldis and Ruscas to flight and now play the first fiddle myself'. George Vertue, the early historian of art in Britain, wrote that the manner of Ramsay's painting was 'rather licked than pencilled, neither broad, grand nor free'.

The curators of the exhibition have done well to secure the loans of some of Ramsay's great early masterpieces in the Italianate style to place alongside the revelatory head-and-shoulders portrait of Francis Hutcheson (c. 1745), the leading philosopher at the University of Glasgow, whose truthful head emerges unforgettably from a darkened background. An outstanding impact is made by the baroque full-length of Dr Richard Mead (1747; Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum), the leading English collector and man of taste, who advanced Ramsay's early career in London. Mead also owned, and had most probably commissioned, one of Ramsay's most memorable portraits of a female sitter, Flora MacDonald, the renowned Jacobite heroine (1749; Fig. 3). Having helped Prince Charles Edward Stewart to escape from the Isle of Skye to the Western Isles after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Flora MacDonald had been captured by the Hanoverian forces. After her release from the Tower of London, she was feted by London society, but Ramsay in his portrait shows her as a woman of will, haunted by the ongoing destruction of Gaelic society across the Highlands and Islands.

The portrait of Flora MacDonald is rather an anomaly in Ramsay's female portraiture, in that her image was of interest to Mead on account of her value as a celebrated heroine. Ramsay, unlike his great mid-century rival in London, Joshua Reynolds, generally shunned portraying actresses, courtesans and fashionable celebrities. By contrast, the Hunterian's exhibition is especially strong in its display of Ramsay's portraits of literary women, society hostesses and bluestockings, notably--and all from private collections--Frances Boscawen (c. 1747-48), Lady Mary Hervey (c. t762) and the serenely composed Lady Caroline Fox, Baroness Holland (1766), which is very reminiscent of Chardin's work. Ann Dulau's essay offers a nuanced analysis of this group of refined portraits of women of sensibility, which are so imbued with French taste. The exhibition concludes with Ramsay's famous portraits of the great Enlightenment philosophers, both from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh: David Hume (1754) wearing a red cap and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1766) wearing an Armenian fur hat. In this modestly scaled show, with all its tact and refinement, one can imagine the lively art of conversation still being practised between the artist and his cultured friends.

Stephen Lloyd is co-editor of Henry Raeburn. Context, Reception and Reputation (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
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Title Annotation:Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment
Author:Lloyd, Stephen
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Words:969
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