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Allan Ramsay

Portraiture on display: Allan Ramsay stars solo while a whole cast swaggers at the Tate

Two massive shows bring glamour and glitz to London

The portrait is under close scrutiny in two major exhibitions this month. “Allan Ramsay” is at the National Portrait Gallery from 16 October to 17 January 1993 and “The Swagger Portrait” at the Tate Gallery from 14 October to 10 January 1993. Both institutions have also acquired major English portraits this year.

The Ramsay show, previously in Edinburgh, enjoyed a huge success at the Festival, with unanimously enthusiastic reviews, and it reappears minus only three portraits at the NPG; sadly, one of these is the grandiose “George III”. The whole of Ramsay’s Edinburgh-Rome-London career is examined for the first time, with over one hundred exhibits, including many of his fine drawings. The ease with which he passes from provincial gaucheries to suave Franco-Italianate portraiture, which made him painter to King George III, is fully recorded. He emerges as one of the great colourists of his period and his range of sitters is more catholic and international than Gainsborough’s or Reynolds’s, ranging from Rousseau to Flora Macdonald.

The Keeper of the Tate’s British Collection, Andrew Wilton, has organised “The Swagger Portrait”. “Swagger”, in its earliest, Shakespearean use, conveys insolent pretension, but in this exhibition it refers specifically to conspicuously glamorous likenesses, from Van Dyck in the 1630s to Philip de Laszlo in the 1920s. Swaggering is obviously best done in the full-length format, but tempered by the “unique British context of compromise, Protestant seriousness and distrust of display”, as Wilton says in his eloquent introduction to the catalogue (Tate Gallery Publications). Seventy-nine works are included, some rarely seen outside private collections. Van Dyck dominates, with Lawrence and Sargent as close runners-up, and Lely, Winterhalter and Boldini close behind.

With the aid of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Art Collections Fund, the National Portrait Gallery has bought three distinguished portraits of important British sitters in the first half of this year: Robert Walker’s “John Evelyn” of 1648 shows the famous diarist with his hand resting upon a skull and it was painted as a wedding portrait for his wife, to accompany a treatise on matrimony. Pompeo Batoni’s “Frederick North” was painted during the future Prime Minister’s stay in Rome, and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Sir Charles Stewart” (later Ambassador at Vienna) may have prompted the Prince Regent to patronise the painter. The last two pictures were acquired by private treaty through Christie’s, as was William Dobson’s “Portrait of his wife”, of 1635-40, for the Tate Gallery, which went on display last month.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Allan Ramsay stars solo'