Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady as a Shepherdess, late 1740s/early 1750s 

Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

Portrait of a Lady as a Shepherdess, late 1740s/early 1750s, Allan Ramsay
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 101.6cm
Possibly, according to a label verso, ‘Mrs Colt’, where described as by ‘Hudson’; Collection of Lucius O’Callaghan, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland; With Agnews and Sons, London, as by Joseph Highmore; English Private Collection.
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Allan Ramsay was the most talented artist to emerge from Scotland in the first half of the eighteenth century, and, along with later English colleagues such as Joshua Reynolds, led the way to creating a new, independently British approach to portraiture. The present portrait is a newly discovered work from relatively early on in his career. It shows a sitter in the guise of a shepherdess, a popular pose from patrons aspiring to the Arcadian ideal. The portrait was previously in the collection of the former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Lucius. A label on the reverse of the portrait reads ‘Mrs Colt / (Hudson)’, which may relate to a previous owner, or the fact that the portrait was identified as showing a Mrs Colt. If so, the identification must predate the picture when it was with Agnews, for by then it was sold as an anonymous portrait, and as a work by Joseph Highmore. The Colt name may refer to the prominent Scottish family, the Colts of Gartsherrie; if so a possible candidate as sitter may be the wife of Oliver Colt, Helen Stuart, daughter of Robert, 7th Lord Blantyre, who was married in 1755.

The portrait relates to a number of portraits from the late 1740s and early 1750s, such as the 1754 portrait of Cecilia Craigie [with Richard Green], which also shares similarities in the handling of the pinks and white in the dress. Ramsay’s works from this date represent an important moment in his development as an artist. By this stage, Ramsay’s portraiture had broken free from the more traditional constraints of early eighteenth century art, such as that by Hans Hysing, whose pupil Ramsay had been in the 1732. Instead, we are able to see the creative flair for elegance that would set Ramsay apart from his contemporaries. While the dress and body do not quite achieve the fluency of his later works, areas such as the powerfully observed head show fully the distinctive approach that dominates Ramsay’s later style.

The most decisive factor in Ramsay’s early career was his first trip to Rome between 1736-9. For although Ramsay, like many of his English contemporaries, at first worked in loose association with the St Martin's Lane Academy founded by Hogarth, his trip to Rome, undertaken in 1736-8, gave him a significant advantage over his colleagues. There Ramsay studied Old Masters, drew copiously, and took inspiration from antiquities such as the Apollo Belvedere, which would later prove crucial to the development of his portraits such as the Chief of Macleod of c.1747 [Dunvegan Castle]. Ramsay also studied under Francesco Imperiali, and the great Neapolitan, Francesco Solimena.

The difference in Ramsay’s work on his return was immediately noticeable to the commissioning public. The commentator Alexander Gordon described him as ‘one of the first rate portrait painters in London’ as early as December 1738. By then, the young painter was already charging eight guineas a head, some three guineas more than Reynolds was to charge when he settled in London some fifteen years later. By 1740 Ramsay felt able to boast that he was ‘the first fiddle’ in London portraiture, and if this can be disputed he still had a remarkable client-list for a newcomer, with sitters such as the Princess of Wales, Sir Robert Walpole, the Duke of Argyll and the Lord Chancellor, Philip, Earl of Hardwicke.

Ramsay’s works from this date are therefore infused with a delicate Italianate manner. This contrasted markedly with works by competitors such as Thomas Hudson, whose poses were based as much on etiquette as artistic composition, and tended to be stiff and lacking in movement. Ramsay’s portraits of women in particular gained an air of elegance, as seen here, which proved immediately popular, chiefly on account of their sophisticated colouring and fine draughtmanship (while many of Hudson’s sitter’s look alike, for example, Ramsay’s easy ability to capture likenesses gives his sitters a distinctively individual look). And so Ramsay, along with the likes of that other Roman traveler, Joshua Reynolds, became one of a new generation of painters whose skill allowed them to break free from the conventions of earlier artists, and consequently the English grand manner was born.
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