Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman 1740

Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

Portrait of a Gentleman, Allan Ramsay
Oil on canvas
18th Century
44 x 32 inches 111.8 x 81.2 cm
Private Collection, USA.
This portrait is significant not only in its sheer virtuosity and elegance, but in the fact that it is the work of the artist at the age of twenty seven, only two years after he had established himself as an independent practioner in Covent Garden. Like many of his English contemporaries he worked in loose association with the St Martin's Lane Academy under the tutelage of William Hogarth between 1738 and 1739, but he also had enjoyed the direct influence of Italian masters: in 1736 he studied under Francesco Imperiali, and in the following year under the great Neapolitan, Francesco Solimena. The influence of the former's pupil, Pompeio Batoni remains discernible, particularly in Ramsay's early work.

Ramsay burst upon the London scene with immediate success. The commentator Alexander Gordon described him as early as ''one of the first rate portrait painters in London'' (1) as early as December 1738, when 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 he was 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.

The pose is a standard gentlemanly attitude of the period, though Ramsay injects a great deal of life and expressiveness into the formula. One noticeable feature is his concern with the gesturing of hands. They are depicted in a fashion that is elegant without being artificial, and with the turn of the head create a triangle of movement within the composition. That this is not merely fortuitous can be seen from other portraits of this and later periods in Ramsay's work; an almost identically held stick appears in Francis, 2nd Duke of Buccleuch (1739) and the much later Lady Mary Coke (1762) portrays the sitter clutching the neck of a theorbo in a similar fashion. Ramsay is known to be the first British portraitist to derive one of his poses from the celebrated Apollo Belvedere (Norman, 22nd Chief of MacLeod c.1747) and it is tempting, knowing his classical enthusiasms, to see the inspiration of this gesture in the Prima Porta statue of Emperor Augustus, which grips a baton in an almost identical manner.

The sitter's almost-military costume appears very similar to that worn by James Ogilvy 6th Earl of Findlater (Scottish Private Collection) in a painting by Ramsay of c,1750, and plainly reflects a contemporary fashion. Dating of this portrait is confirmed by a companion portrait of the sitter's wife in the same collection, which is signed and dated by Ramsay in the year 1740.

(1) Alexander Gordon to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. London 2nd December 1738. Quoted in Iain Gordon Brown, Allan Ramsay''s Rise and Reputation, Walpole Society L (1984), p236.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.