Hugh Ramsay was one of the many Australian artists who travelled to Europe to enhance their artistic training, producing a remarkable number of works in Australia and abroad between 1894 and 1906, primarily portraits.
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The artist Hugh Ramsay was born in Glasgow on 25 May 1877, the sixth of nine children of John Ramsay and Margaret, née Thomson. The Ramsays migrated to Melbourne in 1878, settling the next year into the large family house 'Clydebank’ at Essendon in 1888. Ramsay attended the National Gallery School between 1894 and 1899, studying under the drawing master Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall, who had recently been appointed head of the Gallery and Gallery School in 1892. Ramsay’s fellow students included George Coates, Dora Meeson, Violet Teague, Norman MacGeorge, Max Meldrum, George Bell, Rose MacPherson (later Preston) and Norman Carter. Between 1895 and 1899 Ramsay won numerous prizes for both his drawings and paintings; in 1898 he received first place in the categories of 'drawing from the nude’ and 'half nude painting’. He supplemented the money and tuition fees he received in prizes by teaching at his studio at 312 Flinders Street, which he rented from the arts patron Carl Pinschof from 1897. Outside his Gallery School training, Ramsay attended Emanuel Phillips Fox and Tudor St. GeorgeTucker's summer school at Charterisville in 1897. Further, in 1898 he, Norman Carter and Harley Griffiths rented a shack in Eltham, Victoria. Seeking to venture further abroad, Ramsay submitted entries for the National Gallery of Victoria travelling scholarships of 1896 and 1899, which were awarded to Coates and Meldrum respectively. John Longstaff supported Ramsay’s determination to travel, aiding him in raising funds through the organisation of an art union in 1899. (Art unions, popular in the late nineteenth century, were lotteries designed to distribute artworks to subscribers, with the proceeds aiding artists who had works that remained unsold or were struggling financially.) In 1899, Longstaff enlisted the important art patron Baldwin Spencer to help compile a subscribers list and also to solicit contributions.
With proceeds from the art union, Ramsay departed Melbourne on 14 September 1900 on the SS Persic. He was unofficially engaged to his German student Lischen Muller. On the voyage, he met George W. Lambert, who had won the inaugural NSW Travelling Scholarship. Ramsay became close friends with Lambert and his new wife Amy. After arriving in London on 11 November 1900, Ramsay visited his cousins in Scotland, staying with Mima and John Lennie. In January 1901 he reached Paris, where he moved in with J.S. MacDonald at 51 Boulevard St. Jacques in Montparnasse. This series of apartments above a soda water factory also housed the American artists Frederick Frieseke and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and from mid 1902 the Australian Ambrose Patterson. In February 1901 George and Amy Lambert moved in across the road at number 31. These artists socialised together, sharing meals and playing music, and worked together, assessing and learning from each other’s art. The men often invited other Australian expatriates to their studios, including Edward Officer, Rupert Bunny and Max Meldrum. They also used each other as models; for instance Ramsay painted Patterson in A Student of the Latin Quarter. Following the advice of Longstaff, Ramsay entered the Atelier Colarossi in February 1901, and in a few months moved to the Atelier Delecluse, along with Lambert and Patterson. In Paris, Ramsay was surrounded by art; he viewed contemporary artists in the Palais du Luxembourg and like most students, he continually visited the Louvre, studying the Old Masters, including Van Dyck, Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and especially Velasquez. As his style developed, his preference for portraiture emerged.
In 1901, after only three months in Paris, Ramsay had his Portrait of James S. MacDonald hung at the Old Salon. Ramsay’s talent was confirmed when in April 1902 he had four of the five works he submitted to the New Salon accepted and hung together on the line: Jeanne, Rene Puaux, Still life – books, mask and lamp and A Lady of Cleveland. Lambert had his portrait of Amy, La Guitariste accepted, whilst both Patterson and MacDonald’s works were rejected. Ramsay’s burgeoning reputation was further enhanced by his introduction to Nellie Melba by Patterson, whose brother Tom had married her sister Belle. Melba was known for supporting promising young Australians, including Patterson himself. In early 1902, Melba and Haddon Chambers visited Ramsay’s studio, and she suggested that he come to London to paint her portrait. Accordingly, Ramsay went to London, where he stayed with Longstaff at St Johns Wood. He had four works accepted for the British Colonial Art exhibition at the Royal Institute Galleries, including Lady in Blue, the portrait of Mr and Mrs MacDonald. However, in London Ramsay’s health declined; he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and so with 100 pounds from Melba he returned to Melbourne in September 1902. Melba herself soon visited Australia, and in December held an exhibition of 38 of Ramsay’s works at Myoora, the house she rented at Toorak. She also commissioned him to paint her niece and also her father, David Mitchell. However, Ramsay’s portrait of Melba herself was never completed.
In 1903 Ramsay exhibited several works with the Victorian Artists Society, including his largest painting An Equestrian Portrait. Significantly, he was invited by Hall to be a judge for the 1903 National Gallery of Victoria travelling scholarship and also the student exhibition, along with Walter Withers and Girolamo Nerli. In July 1904 he was on the panel of the Victorian Artists Society exhibition, where he showed one of his best known works Two Girls in White, better known as The Sisters. With his health increasingly weak, Ramsay went to the country in August 1904, where he stayed at Barnawatha with the MacKenzie family. He ended his five year engagement with Lischen. After returning to Clydebank, at age 28, he died on 5 March 1906.
Hugh Ramsay influenced many artists during his decade of active work, especially Patterson and Lambert. A memorial exhibition was held in 1918 at the Fine Art Society, Melbourne, and retrospectives were held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943 and then 50 years later in 1992.