Lieutenant John Abercrombie (d.1758) of the 1st Foot, The Royal Regiment signed and dated 'A. Ramsay 1754' (lower right) oil on canvas 76.2 x 63.5 cm. (30 x 25 in.)
PROVENANCE: John Yates Sale; Christie's, London, 26 July 1935, lot 117 ('Portrait of a Gentleman, of the Abercromby Family'; 125 gns to Reid) L.C. Wallach Sale; Sotheby's, London, 25 May 1955, lot 123 J.R. Lang, The White House of Milliken, Brookfield, Renfrewshire Thence by descent
LITERATURE: Alastair Smart, Allan Ramsay: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, ed. John Ingamells, New Haven and London 1999, p. 203, no. 593; p. 337, fig. 467
Born in Edinburgh, Allan Ramsay built a highly successful career as a portrait painter in London from 1738, but retained his Scottish connections and clientele. This fine portrait of John Abercrombie, an officer in the 1st Regiment of Foot, was painted when the artist was working in Edinburgh during the first half of 1754, prior to his departure for his second extended visit to Italy. The picture has the 'strong likeness firm in drawing' for which George Vertue praised Ramsay's male portraits, but also the 'new and lively naturalism' which the artist developed in the early 1750's (quoted in Smart, op cit, p. 8).
The painted oval was a favourite format for Ramsay's half-length portraits. In 1754, the same year as the Abercrombie portrait, he painted the philosopher David Hume in this format (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh), while the pose adopted by John Abercrombie is repeated in another military portrait, that of Sir Peter Halkett, 2nd Bt, the whereabouts of which is unknown (Smart, op. cit, pp. 129-130, no. 234; p. 334, fig. 455).
John Abercrombie was serving in the oldest, and one of the most distinguished, regiments of the British Army, the 1st Foot or Royal Regiment, today known as The Royal Scots. He had begun his career on 13th March 1741 as an Ensign in another Lowland regiment, the 25th Foot, later the King's Own Scottish Borderers. On 10th May 1742 Abercrombie was promoted Second Lieutenant; on 28th April 1743 he was transferred to Hope's 60th Foot and on 2nd May 1744 he was promoted Lieutenant. He exchanged out of the 60th Foot before it was disbanded at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and into the 1st Battalion of the 1st Foot on 16th April 1746. On 2nd February 1757 he was promoted Captain-Lieutenant of the 1/1st Foot, that is the senior Lieutenant who had immediate management of the Colonel's Company. Abercrombie was made Captain of his own company in the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Foot on 7th May 1757. During the Seven Years' War (1757-1763) the 2nd Battalion of the regiment served in North America. Captain Abercrombie was 'discharged dead' on 16th July 1758, a casualty perhaps of the fierce Indian raids on the South Carolina border, where the Battalion was stationed. (Commissions in the Army were purchased at this period. Abercrombie's rapid promotions in the early years of his career and his ability to exchange into the 1st Foot, which would have required a douceur to the officer with whom the exchange was arranged, suggests that Abercrombie was a reasonably wealthy man, well able to afford Ramsay's fees as a portraitist.)
Ramsay's portrait makes a feature of the uniform of the 1st Foot, scarlet with dark blue facings and gold lace, which then, as now, are the colours of the Royal livery. All eighteenth-century Royal regiments wore scarlet and blue, although some had silver lace. The 1st Foot was raised in 1633 by John Hepburn of Athelstaneford, near Haddington in East Lothian, at the request of Charles I. Then, as now, the senior regiment of infantry, it fought at the coveted position to the right of the line. On 16th April 1746, coincidentally the day that John Abercrombie joined the 1st Foot, the regiment fought at the Battle of Culloden.
We are grateful to Andrew Cormack for assistance in cataloguing this lot.