Exhibition – Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment

Hunterian Art Gallery

I had to look up what the Enlightenment was, not having covered this yet in my studies. The British Museum says that “The Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820”.

Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to it as a “European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness”. This sounds like an extension of the philosophies that were popular in the Renaissance and the humanist movement.

Marking 300 years since the birth of Allan Ramsay in 1713, the exhibition contains a good selection of his numerous portraits, drawings and water colour landscapes from his thirty year career as a painter and also includes other materials which demonstrate Ramsay’s influences and his importance in the 18th century and beyond. The choice of portraits reflects the surroundings and ties in with the title of the exhibition. Included are portraits of major intellectuals and academics of the day: the philosophers David Hume and Francis Hutcheson and Rousseau, the physicians Dr Richard Mead and Dr Alexander Munro, the architect James Adam and of course the benefactor of the Hunterian Museum, William Hunter himself. In addition there are various portraits of aristocrats and family members.

The exhibition space itself, upstairs from the main art gallery, is an odd shape, consisting of a chain of short corridors and rooms which are quite narrow at places. I found myself, as I entered, trying to figure out whether to go left in to one room or right into another as the entrance is in the middle, and the paintings were not arranged in any obvious order. They seemed to be grouped with vague topics, some of which were clear such as his travels to Rome, and his academic drawings but the section named “family” with his magnificent self portrait from 1737 , placed next to sketches of his father, wife and a later self portrait were a bit incongruous. The section seemed to cross a passageway where I later found another self portrait executed in pastel which would have been nice to see next to the others. Due to the space it perhaps was not appropriate to hang the exhibition in chronological order but I found it difficult to link the paintings together, despite these sections. I also felt the exhibition was quite expensive at £6.50 considering its small size and compared to the large Peter Doig show at the Scottish National Gallery which was £8 I felt I didn’t get my moneys worth.

Aside from my issues with how the exhibition was hung, the actual paintings were beautiful and there was extensive information about the sitters and of Ramsay’s life and travels. In addition to plaques, text had been stenciled onto the walls in between the pictures which made it easy to read especially as the exhibition was quite busy so I couldn’t get too close to the works at times.

Ramsay’s style had a very delicate touch and his portraits are full of soft detail. Often the sitters are placed against unadorned, dark backgrounds making the figure stand out all the more. Ramsay usually employed a traditional pose, the sitter’s body would face to the side and turn their heads towards the viewer, looking directly out and meeting our eye. There was one exception (in this exhibition) with the portrait of Anne Countess Temple, 1760 who’s face is shown in complete profile. One wonders why he chose this severe and unflattering pose, perhaps it was requested or to fit in with other portraits in the collection. This portrait unlike most of the others, also contains an elaborately decorated background. The table the sitter is leaning against and the slightly out of focus marble fireplaces is extravagantly ornate and forms an important part of the portrait. It shows the importance of the sitter in her luxurious surroundings.


Anne Countess Temple 1760

His interest was steeped in classical literature and this is clear in his style which reminds me of Greek statues although with none of the idealism.His visits to Italy have influenced his painting, learning different techniques and including them in his own portraits. In all of the paintings, the surface is smooth and flat with a high gloss varnish which is often crazed although this doesn’t detract from the images. The portraits are beautifully executed, with soft edges and subtle blending. One of the most engaging is his earliest self portrait (1737 -39). In this portrait, Ramsay’s eyes are strikingly clear and incredibly realistic. In comparison, I noticed other features in the painting are often subtly blurred such as his ear lobes or chin line.

NPG 3311; Allan Ramsay by Allan Ramsay

This seems to be a technique that he employed in many of his paintings and tends to draw the attention to the sitters gaze and helps them seem real. I noticed in many of the portraits, deliberate areas of blending and clarity, it is similar to the technique of soft focus used in photography. The portrait of Frances Boscawen shows hard contrast lines around the face but the long line of the back of her neck is gently blurred as if to make this area recede against the perfectly clear face.

The portrait of Frances Boscawen was the first I looked at in the exhibition and I was surprised at the unflattering nature of the portrait. The plaque describes her as having “strong features” which is a tactful way of say that Ramsay has done nothing to flatter her. Walking around the exhibition however, I soon realised that a lot of his portraits had similar long noses and “strong features” (see below – Countess Stanhope is a mezzotint by James Macardell but is very similar to the original).  He has chosen not to idealise his sitters and has presumably painted them as they were (although it maybe that Ramsay developed a style which sightly elongated the face or accentuated certain features and this may have been popular at the time).

frances boscawen

Frances Boscawen

NPG D4300; Grizel Stanhope (nÈe Hamilton), Countess Stanhope by James Macardell, after  Allan Ramsay

Countess Stanhope by James Macardell after Allan Ramsay


James Adam

Ramsay seems to be able to paint the skin with a transparency and fragility that reminds me of Botticelli. The paleness of the sitters is striking with only a slight becoming flush showing on some of the younger ladies’ cheeks. This was no doubt in vogue at the time and showed elegance and refinement. There was however one portrait in the exhibition that showed a gentleman with a very rugged complexion. Dr John Ward 1749 has a healthy red glow which stands out among the other portraits. I was interested if this was intentional to demonstrate time spent abroad or working outside, but I have not been able to find any reference to this.

Apart from Ramsay’s exquisite talent in painting the facial features, I feel he outshines himself in his painting of different fabrics realistically. I noticed in some of the sketches that rather than focus on the facial features and dimension in the sketch, he concentrates on the clothing and accessories. This shows that he is confident of depicting the face but he wants to practice getting the buttons and other garb correct. As the official painter to George III in 1760, the emphasis on luxury and opulence in his paintings would be important, in many of his Royal portrait not in this exhibition show very elaborate clothing and drapery. His depiction of the different textures is no less than exquisite. A simple wool coat, a satin gown, a fur stole, velvet drapery and the finest lace are all painted with such skill they become major elements of the composition without diminishing the main focus of the portrait.

Throughout the exhibition, preliminary sketches had been hung next to the related oil painting which I found very interesting. An example of a matched sketch and painting is the portrait of his friend Dr William Hunter the physician, anatomist and collector. I am very familiar with this painting  which is owned by the Hunterian Museum and as an Anatomy student in Glasgow University his collections were a daily part of my life. The portrait is placed next to a sketch owned by the National Gallery of Scotland, and it’s possible to see the cropping lines where Ramsay has decided to change the composition, apparently after the painting was started.

hunter sketch portrait-of-dr-william-hunter

Tucked away at the end of one of the corridors so that I almost missed them were Ramsay’s earliest portraits. These  two large almost identical portraits of Francis Hutcheson were supplemented by sketches in a glass case showing the changes made in the second and larger version. I was surprised to see the apparent differences in the depiction of the face. The smaller version was executed first, and shows a man with quite a square, broad face. In the second version however, his face is even broader and squarer and appears just too flat giving a very odd impression. Having noticed that a number of the portraits had very large and long noses, I did wonder after seeing the two version of Mr Hutcheson, whether some of the portraits were not quite true to life. Of course this opens the debate into what defines a portrait and should it be exactly true to life. Nowadays we expect to see exaggerations or other meanings hidden in portraiture, especially that of people in the public eye but I can only assume that in the 18th century, a good likeness was expected. Ramsay was a very successful portraitist in his time which indicates that his likenesses were pretty accurate so perhaps these portraits of ladies and gents with such very long noses were faithful and that is what the age of Enlightenment and honesty to nature was all about.

Francis Hutcheson ramsay 2

Francis Hutcheson 1745

In addition to his wonderful oil portraits, there was two small watercolour landscapes of the Colosseum from his travels to Rome. In a media, they were executed in a very different style to the oils. They were full of light and translucency with great contrast in the shaded niches in the foreground. I think this shows his mastery of depicting light and atmosphere even in two starkly different media and styles. These watercolour sketches were used in the background of a later portrait.

In summary this was a lovely selection of work from a wonderful portrait artist. However, the exhibition space leaves a bit to be desired and I feel it could have been organised with more thought. Allan Ramsay’s style may appear dated now in contrast to our more painterly techniques of modern portraits but the skill and delicacy of his touch is inspiring.


1. The British Museum website – http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/galleries/themes/room_1_enlightenment.aspx

2. Encyclopaedia Britannica  – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/188441/Enlightenment


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