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Allan Ramsay

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Allan Ramsay Biography


Edinburgh 1713 – 1784 Dover


Allan Ramsay was the leading British portrait painter from 1738 to c.1760, bringing Italian sophistication and French rococo grace to the national tradition. The son of the Scottish poet of the same name, Ramsay attended Edinburgh High School and in 1729 the newly-founded Academy of St Luke. By 1732 he was in London studying with the Swedish painter Hans Hysing (1678-1752). The following summer he established an Edinburgh studio and helped to design the ‘Guse-pie’ house on Castle Hill for his father’s retirement.


In 1736 Ramsay went to Rome to study with Francesco Imperiali; the following year he spent time in the Naples studio of Francesco Solimena, making portrait drawings of British residents. In 1738 he set up as a portrait painter in London and married Anne Bayne, daughter of an Edinburgh professor. His patrons included important Scottish aristocratic families such as the Buccleuchs, Dalrymples and Argylls. Ramsay’s Italianate baroque manner gave way in the mid-1750s to a soft, naturalistic style influenced by Hogarth and French painters such as Maurice-Quentin de la Tour and Jean-Marc Nattier. Ramsay’s ‘French’ elegance is epitomised by his portrait of his second wife Margaret, daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, with whom he eloped in 1752 (c.1758-60; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). 


From 1754-7 Ramsay was again based in Rome, part of an artistic and intellectual circle which included Clérisseau, Piranesi and Robert Adam. In 1755 he published his Hume-influenced Dialogue on Taste which affirms the relativity of aesthetic judgements. Upon his return to London, Ramsay was commissioned by the Prince of Wales’s mentor Lord Bute to paint the young heir to the throne. When the Prince succeeded as George III in 1760, Ramsay was given the duties of Principal Painter, although he did not hold the title officially until 1767. Ramsay’s portraits of the royal family added a note of intimacy and informality which suited the new monarch’s domestic style of kingship.


In the early 1760s Ramsay was pitted against rising star Joshua Reynolds when both contributed to a major series of family portraits for Holland House commissioned by Lady Caroline Lennox, Baroness Holland. He was elected Vice-President of the Society of Artists in 1766 but never showed there, preferring private views in his own house. From the mid-1760s Ramsay’s paintings show an increasing concern with light and chiaroscuro, with forms modelled in cool greys, as can be seen in the perceptive portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1766 (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).


In March 1773 Ramsay injured his right arm and retired from painting to devote himself to literary pursuits, although his large studio continued to produce Coronation portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte as ambassadorial gifts, mostly painted by Philip Reinagle. Ramsay stayed once more in Rome 1775-7 and on a long visit to Ischia returned to making exquisite chalk studies. He began a learned treatise (never published) concerning the site of Horace’s Sabine villa, staying at Licenza and making landscape sketches which were worked up in watercolour by Jacob More for the engraver. Although frail, Ramsay made one more visit to Italy from 1782-4 to assuage the grief of his wife’s death, enjoying the company of Batoni, James Barry, John Robert Cozens and Sir George Beaumont. In 1784 he began the long voyage home and just reached the shores of Britain, dying at Dover on 10th August.    


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