The art and archive of Hugh Ramsay
Rebecca Blake looks into the National Gallery of Australia’s Ramsay archive, which contains a cornucopia of material about the Australian painting prodigy Hugh Ramsay, who died too young yet left an indelible mark in our art history.
In his self-portraits, Australian painter Hugh Ramsay (1877–1906) portrays himself hard at work and surrounded by the tools of his trade in his Paris studio. Painting materials were undeniably treasured by Ramsay and regularly featured in his self-portraits as symbols of his vocation as a determined young artist studying in Paris. One of his finest paintings, Self-portrait (smoking in front of piano) 1901–02 features a still-life arrangement of semi-translucent bottles near a wooden paintbox and a pewter jug containing finely tapered paintbrushes. The composition is a homage to the materials that are key to Ramsay’s working life as an artist.
The National Gallery holds an expansive archival collection of Ramsay’s painting tools, photographs, letters and sketchbooks — a selection of which were on display in the 2019 exhibition Hugh Ramsay, curated by Dr Deborah Hart. These materials provide insights into the painting techniques, life and mind of the artist. Collated and carefully preserved by Ramsay’s family, the collection was generously gifted to the National Gallery as two separate gifts — one from Patricia Fullerton, the artist’s great-niece, and the other from Janet Ramsay Thompson, his niece, and her husband John Oswald Wicking AM.
One of the most elegant items in the archive is a mahogany Winsor and Newton watercolour box, which was advertised in JW Carmichael’s The art of marine painting in water-colours, a book that Ramsay owned. The box includes a brass lock, 18 whole-pan watercolours and a cut-glass water vessel. The simplest objects can also reveal a wealth of information, such as Ramsay’s paintbrushes. They were made by his friend the Parisian Lucien Lefebvre, who manufactured art supplies for noteworthy artists, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Rupert Bunny. The closeness between Ramsay and Lefebvre is captured in the letters they shared that add richness to the story of the former’s life and art.
The National Gallery’s Ramsay archive includes more than 50 letters written by and to Ramsay, documenting his personal insights during different stages of his life and career. The letters to his family reveal a closeness and shared sense of playfulness. Highlights include a letter from the renowned Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba inviting Ramsay to dine at her London residence and Ramsay’s letter to his father, dated 15 May 1902, that recounts the experience: ‘My dear Father, I have good news to tell you. Madame Melba invited me to dinner at her magnificent house in Great Cumberland Place, & has given me a commission to paint her portrait, full length & life size. What do you think of that, Father? Isn’t it just too good almost to be true’. Unfortunately, Ramsay’s time abroad was cut short due to his illness and the full-length portrait was never realised.
The archival collection also contains a large group of Hugh Ramsay’s photographs, including photographs of his paintings, perhaps taken by the artist himself. This part of the collection is a treasure trove as it documents paintings that currently have no known location, including his 1902 Paris Salon submission Rene Puaux — full length portrait 1902 and his earlier Snow scene in Paris 1901.
The photographs are integral to scholarly research because they capture paintings as they originally appeared during Ramsay’s lifetime. Portrait of Ambrose Patterson 1901–02, in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, is today only a small portion of the painting Ramsay originally created. It was gifted to Ramsay’s friend and fellow artist Ambrose Patterson. Years later, after leaving Paris, it was stored in Belgium, where it was damaged, and so Patterson cropped the canvas.
From the dimensions of the current cut-down painting, 90.5 x 111.8 cm, the photograph shows Ramsay’s original painting was likely to have been almost two metres wide. Patterson sits in Ramsay’s Paris studio wearing velvet corduroy pants — like those he is wearing in A student of the Latin Quarter 1901 — tucked into his socks. The Breton chest, which features in many of Ramsay’s studio portraits, is painted in its entirety with a sculpted white bust sitting on top. Dominating the left portion of the composition is a large canvas with the excess material hanging loose as a stark white strip of paint. Glimpsed behind it is the piano that Ramsay and his studio-mate James S MacDonald hauled up to their studio on the top floor of a makeshift timber building.
The archive is a rich repository that sheds light on Ramsay’s artistic practice, his personal life and his close, supportive family and friends. We are tremendously grateful to the Ramsay family for their remarkable act of generosity in making the archival collection accessible to the Australian public through the National Gallery of Australia.
Rebecca Blake is Curatorial Assistant, Australian Painting and Sculpture, National Gallery of Australia.