The Scottish Visitors: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick

Allan Ramsay 1713–1784, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, Mrs Allan Ramsay, about 1758–9. Oil on canvas,  29¼ x 24⅜ in. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Bequest of Lady Murray of Henderland, 1861 (NG430)

A portrait of a scandal. 

Allan Ramsey eloped with the subject of his painting, Margaret Lindsey of Evelick, the daughter of a baronet. Her family severed all relations, and the new couple—with Margaret's little sister in tow—headed to Italy for a three year sojourn. Ramsey created this portrait to hang in his London house, and it was never publically exhibited during his lifetime.

The latest of our Scottish visitors, the excerpt below is from the exhibition catalog for Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, available for purchase in the Museum Store.

Allan Ramsay 1713–1784, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, Mrs Allan Ramsay, about 1758–9

Internationally acclaimed as Ramsay’s consummate achievement as an incomparable painter of women, this ravishing likeness of his second wife epitomises the distinctive grace, refinement and naturalism of his mature style in female portraiture following his second visit to Italy in 1754. The eldest son of the poet Allan Ramsay, author of The Gentle Shepherd (1725), he had enrolled as a founder member of the Academy of St Luke in his native Edinburgh, aged sixteen. From 1736 successive study visits to Italy accelerated his transformation into a portraitist of European stature. In 1738, with no serious rivals in Britain, Ramsay established himself in London while also maintaining a studio and clientele in Edinburgh. The following year he married Anne Bayne, daughter of an Edinburgh law professor. But in 1743 she died in childbirth at the Ramsays’ London residence.

The circumstances of Ramsay’s second marriage, nine years after this bereavement, were to add immeasurably to the mystique surrounding his definitive portrait of his new young wife. During a return visit to Edinburgh in 1752 he eloped with the elder daughter of the Perthshire baronet Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, a niece of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield. The marriage took place without the consent of the Lindsays who immediately severed all relations, deploring their daughter’s conduct and the social inequality of this alliance.

The couple’s sojourn in Italy from 1754 to 1757, accompanied by Margaret Lindsay’s younger sister Katherine, marked a period of self-reinvention for Ramsay through renewed exposure to the work of Andrea del Sarto and Raphael and especially Domenichino, the supreme exponent of the gracefulness to which Ramsay himself aspired. The exquisite draughtsmanship honed in Italy reached its apogee in the present portrait of Margaret, completed about 1758 on returning to Britain. Typical of his many preparatory studies of hands is this expressive drawing of her left hand, clasping a white rose. Far from posing formally, she has ostensibly been surprised in the everyday task of arranging flowers, a conceit reflecting the artist’s evolving ideal of the ‘natural portrait’. Complemented by the harmonious balance of the composition and the extreme delicacy of its execution, the predominantly pastel hues reveal Ramsay’s emulation of the portraiture of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Étienne Liotard as well as Jean-Marc Nattier, another likely French model being Louis Tocqué. Margaret herself is expensively dressed in the height of French-style fashion – as appropriate to her husband’s status by this time and his imminent engagement as court artist to George III.

Paradoxically, despite its current fame, this picture is a quintessentially private image. Probably painted for the artist’s own pleasure and never publicly exhibited in his lifetime, it originally hung in his London house in Soho Square. Margaret’s portrait eventually passed to her sister Katherine’s husband Alexander Murray, Lord Henderland, and then to his younger son Lord Murray, Lord Advocate of Scotland. In 1832 Murray was appointed to the Board of Manufactures, the governing body of the Scottish National Gallery when founded in 1850. A year after the formal opening of the Gallery in 1859, his widow made a memorial gift of drawings as the foundation nucleus of the Scottish national graphic collections. This comprised both old master Italian drawings, mainly by Francesco Allegrini, and a superb cache of Ramsay drawings which is still the principal holding of his graphic oeuvre worldwide. Lady Murray’s first benefaction was followed in 1861 by a sizeable bequest of her late husband’s French and British paintings. Among them was a Reynolds of Margaret Ramsay’s brother Sir David Lindsay of Evelick (NG427). But the jewel of this bequest was, without question, Ramsay’s peerless portrait of his beloved second wife. -Helen Smailes

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