Allan Ramsay (British, 1713-1784) Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll 77 x 64 cm. (30 5/16 x 25 3/16 in.)
Lot 19
Allan Ramsay
(British, 1713-1784)
Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll 77 x 64 cm. (30 5/16 x 25 3/16 in.)
Sold for £ 32,450 (US$ 43,117) inc. premium

Scottish Art

19 Apr 2012, 14:00 BST


Lot Details
Allan Ramsay (British, 1713-1784) Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll 77 x 64 cm. (30 5/16 x 25 3/16 in.)
Allan Ramsay (British, 1713-1784)
Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll
signed and dated 'A. Ramsay/1748' (lower right), inscribed 'ARCHIBALD 3rd DUKE OF ARGYLL.' (lower left)
oil on canvas, feigned oval
77 x 64 cm. (30 5/16 x 25 3/16 in.)
in original carved frame


    The sitter's family
    Thence by direct descent

    Alastair Smart, Allan Ramsay, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, ed. John Ingamells, New Haven, 1999, cat no. 12, p. 72, fig. 305

    If Allan Ramsay's portrait of Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll, seems familiar, it is not surprising. The Duke's face has appeared since 1987 on all Royal Bank of Scotland notes, either as an engraving, or more recently as a watermark. He is there as founder of the bank. He was also one of the Commissioners of the Act of Union. Three hundred years later these things have come around again which makes him strangely topical. The portrait on the bank notes is, like this painting, by Allan Ramsay. In the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, it shows the Duke in his robes of state as Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland. This portrait is altogether more intimate however. Ramsay enjoyed the Duke's patronage for more than twenty years and painted him a number of times. Even so this portrait is outstanding and is the primary image of the Duke from which Ramsay himself derived such later portraits as the very grand full-length painted in 1749 in the City of Glasgow collection, but currently on view in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

    The portrait is bust-length and set in a fictive oval. A device that Ramsay often used, the oval creates a notional window through which we exchange glances with the sitter. As it is part of the painting, this effect is subtly different from that of the picture's very handsome frame. The Duke is wearing a grey coat and white stock. He has a black hat under his arm. The wig that frames his face is also grey. These sober colours focus our attention on the warm tints of his face which is lit from above, the strongest light falling on his forehead. Light is all important for Ramsay. Though the background is hardly articulated at all, by his use of light and the supreme subtlety with which he paints it, Ramsay creates the sense that the sitter is in a real space, shadowy perhaps, but certainly not airless. Intuitively we feel this is not a separate picture world, but one where the same rules prevail as in the world we inhabit, somewhere the sitter too can live and breathe. That suggests he is on the same plane of reality as we are. Truth was inalienable for Ramsay, light its vehicle. In this he was the heir to the Dutch painters of the previous century and was quite different from his contemporaries for whom truth was an option of style, light simply the agent of drama.

    The Duke's portrait is dated 1748. Ramsay visited him in his London residence in August that year, but then travelled with the Duke to Scotland and in September was his guest at Inverarary Castle. Where the picture was painted, in London or in Argyll, we cannot say for sure, but Inverarary Castle is the more likely as the picture seems to be entirely autograph. This is typical of the pictures Ramsay painted in Scotland. In London he still used assistants at this date, but no assistant would have travelled north with him.

    The relationship between the two men that these circumstances suggest is plainly seen in the intimacy the picture displays. That this was the most powerful man in Scotland you cannot doubt for a moment, but power, especially in the eighteenth century, puts up barriers and asserts itself through display. It is at odds with intimacy. This portrait could hardly be more understated. Ramsay shows us the power is in the man, not the office. Ramsay is with Burns: '
    "The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
    The man's the gold for all that."
    The sitter is reserved certainly, but he looks straight at us. His gaze is level and so startlingly direct, we make such vivid eye contact, it is as though the centuries between us had fallen away and we were in his presence.

    Reynolds and Gainsborough were Ramsay's younger contemporaries. Their much more flamboyant styles might seem to overshadow him, but that is not so. They both learned a great deal from Ramsay. It shows clearly in their earlier work and looking at a portrait like this it is not surprising. Quietly however, indeed by his very quietness, Ramsay outshines them both. Their reputations notwithstanding, he was the greatest portrait painter of his time and this picture is a masterpiece.

    We are grateful to Professor Duncan Macmillan, author of Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age, 1707-1843, Phaidon, 1986, for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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  1. Colleen Bowen
    Specialist - Scottish Art
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