The Hunterian’s fitting tribute to Allan Ramsay

This week marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Allan Ramsay. The Hunterian’s new show is a fitting tribute, says Duncan Macmillan
Picture: Hunterian GalleryPicture: Hunterian Gallery
Picture: Hunterian Gallery

We have not been so good at marking the anniversaries of our great artists. The bicentenary of Raeburn’s death passed almost without notice, likewise the centenary of McTaggart’s, but 13 October will be the tercentenary of Allan Ramsay’s birth and the Hunterian in Glasgow is marking it with Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment.

Certainly if we had to choose, of all our great artists Ramsay is the one it is most fitting to celebrate. The reason that that is so is implicit in the subtitle of the exhibition, Portraits of the Enlightenment. Ramsay belonged at the centre of the Enlightenment and so of the history of Scottish art.

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It is fitting too that it is the Hunterian that has taken the initiative to commemorate him. It is itself an Enlightenment monument. The surgeon William Hunter who left his magnificent collection to Glasgow University was, like Ramsay, a Scot in London. Like Ramsay too, when he went south he took with him the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, Scottish yeast to leaven the English dough.

Hunter and Ramsay were close friends and the artist’s portrait of Hunter around which the show has been built records that friendship. As it does, it also says something very important about Ramsay’s art. All portraiture is social to a greater or lesser degree, but like the Enlightenment itself which hinged so much on conversation, Ramsay’s art is especially so.

In his later career when this picture was painted, Ramsay was at the height of his powers, but his success was such that he was able to choose who he painted and so mostly painted only those close to him like Hunter. We see the painter at his best but, correspondingly, we also come very close to the sitter. Hunter is sitting at his desk, holding a paper in his hand and looking directly at us. The intelligence and awareness in his blue eyes is startling. We really do make eye contact across the centuries in a way that we rarely see in any painting. (Always a master of understated colour, Ramsay also subtly reinforces the effect of Hunter’s eyes by dressing him in a splendid blue coat.)

Here we see Ramsay’s great strength. He does not come between us and those he paints. He uses his consummate skill to conjure their living presence, but like a polite and considerate host making an introduction, he then steps back himself to allow us to converse with someone newly met. When he paints his friend David Hume, the philosopher looks into the distance. As a philosopher, his inner life is perhaps more important than his outer, but the same light of intelligence shines in his eyes and his mouth is ready to smile.

We do meet the direct gaze of other sitters, however. In an early self-portrait we look straight into Ramsay’s own dark brown eyes, for instance, but among the most striking are the partly shadowed eyes of the Duke of Argyll. He was the artist’s friend and patron. He was also the most powerful man in Scotland, but this low-key portrait speaks of his power without any of the trappings of rank or status. This is a picture of the democratic intellect. Ramsay was its master. He is with Burns here, “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp/The man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

But the show’s subtitle also begs a question. Portraits of the Enlightenment perhaps suggests that its main point is as a gallery of portraits of leading intellectual figures of the time. It is that certainly. Here are Hume, Francis Hutcheson, William Hunter himself, of course, Rousseau, the surgeon Alexander Munro, the architect James Adam (his more famous brother Robert’s portrait is lost.) There are many others too who may not now be so famous, but who then lent their support to the kind of intellectual pursuits that Ramsay and his circle enjoyed. These are all striking portraits.

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But Ramsay was not just an observer. These people are his friends and peers. It is his own place at the centre of this circle that gives such extraordinary vitality to this group of pictures and makes this such a memorable show.

Most striking among the portraits though are those of women. When conversation was the key, women held their own. This was the age of the bluestockings, the intellectual women who, often as society hostesses, were the enablers of this intellectual community and Ramsay painted them as no-one else did.

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Caroline Fox, Baroness Holland, was a central figure in his circle, for instance, and an important patron of the artist. She looks out at us with a level gaze. Perfectly at ease, she is seated at her sewing table, but her sewing has been pushed aside. Books take its place and she holds a letter in her hand. Intellectual pursuits have displaced the conventional attributes of femininity. She is perfectly at ease in her femininity as her clothes make clear – a red dress trimmed with fur and white lace – but she is not defined by it; nor indeed, as she would be in the hands of most painters, is she limited by it. Here as always Ramsay paints the exquisite clothes of his female sitters quite beautifully. With his immaculate colour sense, he also uses the clothes to construct his compositions as images of harmony. (I always wonder what sartorial consultations he must have had with his lady sitters.) But then he does just the same for the men he paints. The difference between the sexes for him is only in the greater or less elaboration of their clothes. (Though Grizel, Countess Stanhope, is very simply, if richly, dressed.)

Otherwise Ramsay does not treat women differently. His sitters are people first. Their gender has no bearing on how he sees them. Sadly one of his greatest female portraits, that of Elizabeth Montague, could not be borrowed, but the portrait here of Elizabeth St Aubyn is a very similar composition. There was nothing dowdy about the bluestockings. Dressed in muted pink and blue, with wide, white lace sleeves and a black lace shrug, she is the epitome of grace as a social quality.

Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature defined the Enlightenment and set its agenda. Ramsay and Hume were close friends. Ramsay’s study too was human nature. He was also one of the finest draughtsmen of the age, but his skill was not just superficial dexterity. Drawing for him was an instrument of intellectual enquiry, literally a medium, a vehicle of exchange between the mind and the world around it. That being so, Ramsay’s hand is guided, not by the simple need to enumerate facts, but by sympathy and imagination. It is there that his art meets Hume’s philosophy. The Enlightenment did not signify the triumph of reason, but recognition of its limitations; reason is no more than a tool; without the imagination to guide and control it, it is useless.

We see what this means visually in the softness of Ramsay’s touch, the ultimate lack of definition in his later works. We see it too in a lovely, informal drawing of his wife, Margaret Lindsay, where he only puts down what he can see which in places falls far short of any literal description. The imagination provides what’s missing. That is why his portraits have such presence. They engage our imagination just as the real person would do. Raeburn followed Ramsay in this and thence, if not by a direct route, nevertheless from the same point of origin in the Enlightenment, the Impressionists built on this understanding of the way the mind deals with the eye’s approximations. Ramsay had started on the road to modernity.
• Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment is at the Hunterian Gallery, Glasgow, until 5 January.