Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ramsay, Hugh (1877–1906)

by Patricia Fullerton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), self-portrait, 1895-1906

Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), self-portrait, 1895-1906

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn1045653

Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), artist, was born on 25 May 1877 at Glasgow, Scotland, sixth son of John Ramsay, die-sinker and engraver, and his wife Margaret, née Thomson. In 1878 the family migrated to Melbourne. The Ramsays raised their nine children piously, from 1888 at the substantial family home, Clydebank, Essendon. Hugh attended Essendon Grammar School where in 1891 he was dux in his final year. Gifted in both art and music, he was organist and choirmaster at the Congregational Church, Ascot Vale.

In 1894 he entered the National Gallery schools under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. Hall's teaching steeped Ramsay in the tonal tradition of Velasquez and stimulated his interest in the portraiture of Whistler and Manet. In 1897 he briefly attended classes with E. Phillips Fox and T. St G. Tucker at Charterisville, Heidelberg. John Longstaff recognized Ramsay's promise, took a particular interest in his work, and remained a friend and mentor. Ramsay was a diligent student with a natural facility; his prize-winning was impressive, but he failed to gain the travelling scholarship in 1896 and 1899.

Determined to study in Europe, he sailed in September 1900, meeting on board George and Amy Lambert. In Paris he shared James MacDonald's studio, a dilapidated building at Montparnasse which housed other artists including Ambrose Patterson and the Americans Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frederick Freiseke. The Lamberts lived nearby. Both Ramsay and Lambert studied at the Académie Colarossi. Ramsay's visits to the Louvre to study Velasquez and the Old Masters improved his work. He painted from dawn till late at night and his influence on Patterson and Lambert became evident.

In April 1902 Ramsay won international acclaim when four of five paintings submitted to the New Salon were accepted and grouped together, an honour normally extended only to members of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. The paintings were 'Jeanne', 'A Lady of Cleveland, U.S.A.', 'René Puaux' and 'Still Life: Books, Mask and Lamp'.

Impressed and grateful for his help, Patterson introduced Ramsay to (Dame) Nellie Melba who invited him to paint her portrait in London. There he stayed with Longstaff who, like Melba, introduced his connexions. John Singer Sargent's works at the Royal Academy impressed him profoundly. Ramsay seemed on the brink of success but within weeks of his arrival his doctor diagnosed tuberculosis, caused by the overwork and poor living conditions during two winters in Paris. An immediate return to Australia was prescribed.

Melba returned soon after Ramsay. She held an exhibition of his works at her Toorak house, Myoora, in December 1902 and commissioned him to paint her father and niece. Ramsay was appointed to the judging panel for the gallery school's annual student exhibition and to the Victorian Artists' Society's selection committee. Despite orders to rest, he continued to work, painting with a new vigour and breadth of style derived from his recent admiration for Sargent, producing the large-scale canvases exhibited at the V.A.S. in 1903 and 1904: 'An Equestrian Portrait', 'Lady with a Fan' and 'The Sisters'. In 1904 he was forced to end his five-year engagement to Lischen Muller and rest in the country at Barnawatha. He died at Clydebank on 5 March 1906 aged 28 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Tall, slim and dark, Ramsay was remembered as modest and sensitive with a keen wit and a critical eye. He was close to his family and, of his large output from ten years of active work, they are often his subjects. Of his brothers (Sir) John became a leading surgeon and William established the Kiwi Boot Polish Co.

Generally regarded as an artist's artist, Ramsay has been a major influence on many Australian painters, notably Lambert, Patterson and Fred Williams. Although his work never achieved its full stature, he had a maturity of outlook and technical ability beyond his years. Sensitive insight into character, subtle use of colour, sense of scale and rejection of trivial detail, and an ability to suggest the aura of his subjects made Ramsay one of Australia's leading portraitists.

Major exhibitions were held at Myoora (1902), the Fine Art Society Gallery, Melbourne (1918) and the National Gallery of Victoria (1943). He is represented in all major Australian collections. In 1918 his father established the Hugh Ramsay prize at the National Gallery School.

His portrait by Lambert is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and several of his numerous self-portraits are in major galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • E. A. Vidler, The Art of Hugh Ramsay (Melb, 1918)
  • P. Fullerton, Hugh Ramsay: His Life and Work (Melb, 1988)
  • P. Gourlay, Hugh Ramsay: An Appreciation of his Life and Work (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patricia Fullerton, 'Ramsay, Hugh (1877–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ramsay-hugh-8150/text14243, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), self-portrait, 1895-1906

Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), self-portrait, 1895-1906

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn1045653