Allan Ramsay at the National Galleries of Scotland
For the scholar, it is unsurprising to learn of two 18th century portraits, originally conceived as a pair, which nevertheless became separated, ending up over the generations in different collections. Such is the fate of many paintings, especially those on canvas, which is a two-dimensional pictorial support whose very persistence through the centuries is tied to its mobility. Combined with the durability of oil paint itself, the portability of canvas is part of what makes oil paintings desirable, valuable, even, one might speculate, so entrenched in Western culture. Because of their weight and flexibility, these pictures can be easily moved within or between homes, shipped across oceans, and hence readily bought and sold. Most 18th century portraits, however, that were originally paired and subsequently separated would most likely remain geographically proximate to each other, within the same city, country, or, at the very least, empire. Such objects testify to the proverbial truism of all history being local or even to the insidious nationalism of visual art; artists usually enjoy much more support in their home countries than abroad, meaning that their works have a tendency to stay in the same place. But a pair of 18th century portraits that was separated, then reunited, but nevertheless kept apart would pose something of an art-historical quagmire. If a pair of paintings were reunited into the same collection—and a national collection no less—why not display them side by side, as they were intended to be seen?
This was one of the questions that I set out to answer this past September when I travelled to Edinburgh to visit the National Galleries of Scotland. Those galleries are, as one would expect from their name, plural but united, perhaps not so dissimilar to the United Kingdom itself. There are four National Galleries in Edinburgh: the Scottish National Gallery, Modern One, Modern Two, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Even on their website, which is also unified but plural, the division makes immediate sense and once introduced to the institutional structure there is little reason to question it. In my especially particular, academic experience, however, the divisions between the National Galleries of Scotland became an object of inquiry, starting with the reason for the separation of the two portraits that I travelled to Edinburgh to see.
Those portraits are by one of Scotland’s most accomplished, though still under appreciated, Enlightenment painters: Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Himself the son of the celebrated poet of the same name, the younger Ramsay reached the pinnacle of his profession, being appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III in 1761. Naturally, this appointment resulted in many portraits by Ramsay of the King and Queen, though the large majority of them were workshop copies, which were sent around Britain and to its colonies. In such instances it is easy to imagine a pair of portraits being shipped thousands of miles from their place of creation and, in an effort to maximize the instantiation of surrogate royal presence, even being intentionally separated from each other. The ubiquity and wide distribution, however, of Ramsay’s royal portraits are ironically one of the reasons for his modest reputation outside of Scotland; even in his own lifetime the artist was criticized for churning out copy after copy of these images without paying much attention to their quality. Ramsay’s late and lamentable production, of course, was not the means through which he rose to prominence. In his youth Ramsay established his reputation through captivatingly intimate portraits of the upper echelons of British society, especially of its women, whose appearance, Horace Walpole once noted, Ramsay’s style seemed especially suited to capture.
These two dimensions of Ramsay’s oeuvre are essential to understanding his work; however, I didn’t travelled to Edinburgh to see Ramsay’s society portraits—though they are well represented in the national collections there—nor his royal portraits of George III and his Queen, Charlotte. The latter would have been sent to Edinburgh in the late 18th century in efforts to reassert the royal prerogative of the House of Hannover and they would have been all the more important in the wake of the various Jacobite risings in Scotland. In that context, Ramsay’s portraits of the King and Queen would have been the political foil of Jacobite art, pictures intended to show loyalty to the heirs of the Stuart monarchy, who were forced from power during the Glorious Revolution in 1688 because of their Catholic faith and who had strong support in Scotland due to the history of the House of Stuart. Before being appointed by George III, Ramsay himself had even been hired by the Stuart cause and his remarkably delicate portrait of the Jacobite heir, Bonnie Prince Charlie, from 1745—created when the Stuarts briefly installed themselves in Edinburgh through a short-lived military coup—is prominently displayed in a memorable exhibition of Jacobite art currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
It was, however, yet another dimension to Ramsay’s oeuvre that had drawn me to Edinburgh, the dimension that also lay closest to his heart: his work as an intellectual. Ramsay’s scholarly and literary interests led him to write numerous books and pamphlets, including texts on classic topics like the constitution of England, the American Revolution, and the nature of taste. The artist was also instrumental in establishing Edinburgh’s most famous Enlightenment debating club, the Select Society, of which he was, along with luminaries like Adman Smith and David Hume, a founding member. Ramsay’s royal appointment facilitated this work as it freed him from the burden of making a living through portrait commissions. The scholar that he was, in his later days he dedicated himself to discovering the remains of Horace’s villa outside of Rome, though he still painted on his own terms. Perhaps the most intriguing example of Ramsay’s late production are his portraits of two of the most celebrated thinkers of the 18th century: David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Painted in 1766, and originally conceived for Hume, who hung them in his house, these portraits now have a number of complex interpretations, all of which rely on the pioneering and exhaustive scholarship of Alistair Smart, who dedicated much of his life to studying Ramsay and who passed away in 1992. Since then, it is remarkable that two paintings could sustain so much scholarly effort. Even more remarkable is that the National Galleries of Scotland do not seem committed to the thesis, first put forward by Smart and widely accepted, that the portraits are best experienced and understood when displayed together.
At the mundane level, what seems to be keeping the paintings apart is that they were respectively given to the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at different times and by different people, resulting in the portraits being displayed in different buildings, just a short walk from each other in Edinburgh’s New Town. Since the latter is mostly a collection of pictures of Scottish figures, a portrait of a Swiss like Rousseau would surely stand out and require some contextualization. And since the former has a significant portion of works by continental artists, Rousseau ostensibly fits in better—as he does now, for instance, among some period French still lifes. To separate Ramsay’s Rousseau from his Hume on such grounds, however, is also evidently nationalistic and suggests that a kind of unwitting nationalism, even if attenuated, institutionalized, and principled, is keeping the creation of one of Scotland’s great painters apart from itself. Of course, the portraits are, as I have emphasized, highly mobile and they have been hung together as part of special exhibitions in the National Galleries of Scotland before. But why not make that intended relation a permanent part of their display? As for my own interpretation of the paintings, which revolves around some unnoticed material properties of the originals, I’ll reserve that for my forthcoming book, Portraits of Empiricism, hoping that the provocations present here draw some attention to that larger project as well as to the often unintended consequences of the fraught but ubiquitous relation between visual art and nationhood.