Photograph taken by Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Light bounces of each brick to defy the emptiness of the tunnel in the photograph. This image could work in a gallery as it has depth beyond the bricks and mortar. It reminds me of the colonnades outside the Uffizi where I stood in the rain waiting to see ‘David’ and I consider the many Artists that brought me out of darkness that are hung inside.
The Artists that were displayed inside took me into enlightenment from emptiness. My hero of the Enlightenment and painter of King George III is the Scottish Artist, Allan Ramsay. Regarding his paintings before the exhibition closes on Edinburgh’s Princes Street educates me on how artists paint light.
Outside the portrait gallery, made of red bricks like sunlight illuminates the face of Philosopher David Hume’s statue in Edinburgh, a theme that shines through Ramsay’s work. Frequent trips to Rome introduce Ramsay to sketching classical sculptures on altars, such as Raphael’s statues, which release light even when held inside the Vatican.
The sketches he made in Italy are displayed in this important exhibition that celebrates his birthday being 300 years ago. Even on paper, a pearl-like sheen emerges from Ramsay’s studies of hands and feet showing how the classical sculpture inspires how to draw light itself.
The Rome visits change the perspective of Allan’s faces. They briefly adopt wider perspectives typical of Mannerism, as seen in a sketch copying Pompeo Batoni’s ‘Christ in Glory’. This is developed into a bolder form in his paintings, giving a strong illumination to the features of his first wife, Anne Bayne, in her portrait (1743).
Ramsay flatters the eye further, using the subtle beauty of the ‘S’ shaped Serpentine Line, in his portrait of ‘Queen Charlotte with her Two Children’, using the pretty style of Rococo or French baroque, with soft edges.
The lines of the piece offer contrast and chiaroscuro, reminiscent of the blurred edges of Caravaggio, whereas the face is sketched lighter than the background and hence emerges from the darkness in a similar style to Raphael’s paintings.
There is an evenness to the emotion in all of Ramsay’s compositions, as shown in the sober black and white ‘Lady Inglis’ portrait, where the stability of the style suits the wisdom of the mature sitter.
Whilst painting children can be a marker of an Artist’s expression of innocence, sadly Ramsay’s ‘Sketch of a Dead Child’ is of his deceased first born son (aged 14 months). The understandable accuracy of emotion this piece draws on equates to any modern work. The love behind the image shows us what it is to let the light in.
Following Ramsay’s work across the red brick Scottish galleries, it is interesting to experience the way light flows through all of Allan’s compositions just as it does through the colonnade. Over on nearby Princes Street the painter’s poet father heralds a symmetry to the city’s landscape, with his imposing statue dividing the clouds hanging over the castle.
When Allan Ramsay (Junior) gained a commission to paint the King he took a studio in London but always kept one in Edinburgh, never leaving his roots. This strong foundation of identity resonates through the solid gaze he gives his portrait sitters and his solid family roots show in his assured self-portraits.
In all art produced by this family the details are precise, for example the folds of silk on the gown of the English letter writer ‘Lady Mary Coke’ in her portrait has all the sophistication of mannerism. Beauty lies in the illusion of luxury created by the negative spaces of shadow, which suggest the opulent texture of the material.
Ramsay’s sketchbooks from his drawing classes (1730-3) in Edinburgh’s Academy of St Luke show his early progression and notes how the group welcomes all new comers who wish to learn.
It is through his form of expression Ramsay asks the big questions of life. Ultimately, he does not depend on the image of the physical body to convey his ideas of enlightenment. After leaving the gallery, watching the blocks of light bounce off the rock under Edinburgh Castle in layers like Cheri Lucas Rowland’s photograph above, I imagine the shapes of Ramsay’s composition. Light is enough.
This wonderful exhibition closes next week having just a few more days to run and an emptiness to an inspired space returns.
Find more responses to the above brick arches and other images here
Read more about the enlightenment in Edinburgh in a new ebook bit.ly/goodgardenguide