restricted access 2. Allan Ramsay’s A Dialogue on Taste: a painter’s call to break free from English artistic conventions
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19 2. Allan Ramsay’s A Dialogue on Taste: a painter’s call to break free from English artistic conventions MARION AMBLARD In the second half of the eighteenth century, a distinctive Scottish style of portrait painting began to emerge. Although its development coincided with that of English portraiture, the Scottish school of portrait painting has always been markedly different from its English counterpart. Both schools developed in different conditions and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they did not conform to the same artistic conventions.1 England had long attracted eminent foreign painters; back in the sixteenth century, Hans Holbein (c. 1497–1543) had painted for King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and in the seventeenth century Rubens (1577–1640) and Van Dyck (1599–1641) worked for James VI of Scotland and I of England (1566– 1625) and for his son King Charles I (1600–1649); the Dutch portraitist Peter Lely (1618–80) was the most popular artist at the court of Charles II (1630– 1685) and was appointed Principal Painter to the King in 1661; at Lely’s death, German-born Godfrey Kneller (1623–1723) became the dominant court painter and worked successively for James VII and II (1633–1701), Mary II (1662–1694) and William III (1650–1702), Queen Anne (1665–1714) and King George I (1660–1727) who made him a baronet in 1715. The country was not devoid of native painters but until the end of the 1730s they generally imitated the foreign artists working at the court and were unable to develop a native style. Among others, in the seventeenth century, William Dobson (1611–1646) and John Riley (1646–1691), who both worked at the court, executed portraits in a manner reminiscent of Van Dyck’s style and at the beginning of the eighteenth century Jonathan Richardson (1667–1745), who had been a pupil of Riley, was indebted to Lely and Kneller. In Scotland, political and economic conditions only began to be favourable to the development of pictorial art from the second half of the eighteenth century. Unlike England, Scotland attracted few foreign painters and the 20 majority of Scottish artists left their native country as after the Reformation and the Union of the Crowns in 1603 painters were deprived of their two main patrons, the Catholic Church and the monarch. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch painter Jacob De Wet (1641–1697) lived a few years in Edinburgh where he painted several canvases and decorative paintings for his Scottish patrons’ mansions.2 At the same period, John Baptist de Medina (1659–1710), an artist of Flemish–Spanish origin left London to open his studio in Scotland where he became the most popular portraitist and he was knighted by the Scottish Parliament in 1706.3 By the 1750s, William Delacour (c. 1700–1767), a French painter, also came to work in Edinburgh where he became the first teacher of the newly-opened Trustees’ Academy. If few painters worked in Scotland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was mainly because the request for paintings was very limited until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In fact, the number of patrons was so restricted that, apart from Sir Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), artists could not make a living from their paintings only: they had to diversify their activities by executing engravings, decorative paintings or teaching drawing.4 Moreover, before 1798, when the Trustees’ Academy opened its first classes devoted to the teaching of the fine arts, young people aspiring to an artistic career could only get rudimentary training by enrolling as an apprentice to a craftsman working as a coach painter, a house painter or as a goldsmith.5 Thus most eighteenth-century painters decided to leave Scotland to settle in London, which was the main artistic centre in Great Britain. Some also opened their studio in Italy, as was the case with Jacob More (1740–1790) and Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798) who worked as a landscape painter and a history painter in Rome and two painters, John Smibert (1688–1751) and Cosmo Alexander (1724–1772), also went to work in the British North American colonies.6 Most eighteenth-century Scottish painters trained in London where they could study with a renowned painter or in one of the fine art academies which had opened at the beginning of the century. They also usually spent several years in Italy to complete their training and they returned to London where they opened their studio.7...