Allan Ramsay, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick: The Artist’s Wife, 1758-60. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
Context is everything. You’re a very sophisticated lot, and I’m fairly sure that most of you will have completed the above quotation from Romeo and Juliet, that tale of star-crossed lovers. It comes from Act 2, scene 2:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
This is, of course, Juliet, lamenting that the boy she has just fallen in love with (and will later marry against her parents’ will) comes from the family of her own family’s sworn enemies. Be that as it may, I wasn’t planning to end the quotation with the word ‘name’. I do want to talk about a rose, though, the rose held between the thumb and forefinger of Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, who, as it happened, married artist Allan Ramsay against her parents’ will. It is so carefully and so delicately painted that I want to question if it could be ‘a rose, By any other’ artist? I suspect not, but we will have to look more closely at Allan Ramsay’s work to find out. However, it has been borrowed, and given back, by artist Alison Watt, whose work I will be looking at this Tuesday, 23 November at 6pm (details of this, and subsequent talks, can be found on the diary page of my website). The exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness is effectively a conversation between Alison Watt and Allan Ramsay, between his works and hers, and includes today’s painting as well as another portrait by Ramsay – of his first wife – not to mention Watt’s responses to, or meditations on, or conversations with these and other works by Ramsay. It is a beautiful, focussed exhibition, and I do hope you can join me to look at some of the best of contemporary painting, and the most technically accomplished of contemporary art. Meanwhile, back to the rose…
We see the artist’s second wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, as if caught in the act of arranging flowers. She holds a rose in her left hand, her left elbow apparently resting on the table which supports a large, ceramic vase containing the other flowers. Her right elbow may also be on the table, but the forearm is tucked away, and lost in the abundant lace of the cuff. She looks out towards us – or towards her husband – as if temporarily distracted from her task. The appearance is one of spontaneity, but, as everyone will tell you, it is anything but. She leans into the picture, with her face arriving just to the right of the midway point, one of the features of the composition which suggests her interest in what she is doing. The line of her body runs, more or less, along the diagonal of the painting, from bottom left to top right, and her left forearm – with the hand holding the rose – lies parallel to this. Her right arm lies parallel – again, more or less – to the other diagonal, and continues the line of shadow that comes in from the top left. This interest in geometry, with the zig-zag shape formed by the body and arms, creates a harmony within the painting, but is not too rigid to render it mechanical: it is still a human experience. The panelling, or open door – it is not entirely clear what this is – cuts down vertically, and is another feature that pushes her towards the flowers. It also means that her head is neatly framed – again, evenly, but not too rigidly – by the deep and dark space behind her, so that her face rings out, ensuring that it is the focus of the painting.
The floral arrangement stands out against the background too. There is a wonderful equivalence between face and flowers, as if Ramsay is saying (in the words of Heinrich Heine, set to music by Robert Schumann), ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ – ‘you are like a flower’. A dark gap at the top of the arrangement would be, I think, the ideal place for the last rose, and there it would have an equivalent position to the pink ribbon with which the sitter’s braids, one of which curves around and frames the back of the head, are tied. Even the colours of her face are drawn from exactly the same palette as those of the roses, with the highlight which defines the ridge of her nose, and the silvery lustre on her lower lip being just the same as the tones which model the petals of the flowers. The blue feather, on the other hand, matches the blue patterns on the vase, more flowers, and leaves, which climb around the white ceramic form – Chinese, maybe, or one of the many imitations of the popular imported vessels.
The arm and hand holding the rose were based on a drawing which is also in the exhibition. In the painting they are given prominence by a pool of light which falls onto the vase, neatly framing the hand and pushing it forward as a result of its similar tonal value, a halo against the shadowed section of the vase. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, and the opposite of the head, which is brought forward by the contrast with the dark background. Her lace shawl is remarkably freely painted, with dashes of white and grey defining its structure and allowing us to see the rose-coloured dress beneath, with small dots of black standing in for the shadows it casts. What we are looking at is perfectly clear, even though the painting is entirely evocative, rather than slavishly precise.
The same is true of the rose. It droops, and the stem appears to be broken, something which Watt comments on in the catalogue of the exhibition, noting that we will never know why. For her, ‘it has come to represent the mysteriousness of painting itself’. The part of the stem which Margaret holds remains undefined: a thin, edgy white line passes behind the tip of her middle finger, and then appears, slightly higher up, behind her thumb. However, there is no green here, almost as if this was where Ramsay was going to paint the stem, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. Maybe he realised that the idea was enough. Then beyond the leaves, which are thinly painted over the vase and hand, and faded a little with time, the stem, more fully realised, continues at a different angle, until it reaches the delicately painted and delicately coloured petals. I’m prepared to believe that a rose, by any other artist, wouldn’t look as delicate, or as fragile.
And, as we have returned to Juliet’s words, ‘What’s in a name?’ Here are two photographs I took in the exhibition last week. OK, so one of them is out of focus, but you should still be able to read it.
The first is a label which was attached to the frame at some point in the past, but not as far back as the 18th Century when the work was created. All we learn is that this is ‘The Artist’s Wife’, the name of the artist in question, and his dates. This woman is entirely defined by her husband, there is nothing else we can know about her. The second, even if blurred, is stencilled on the wall of the current exhibition, with her name, ‘Margaret Lindsay of Evelick’, and her dates. Thank goodness we live in more enlightened times: she has – or had – an independent existence after all. The words ‘of Evelick’ tell us that she was from the landed gentry. Her father, Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, was a well-respected baronet, who presumably wanted ‘the best’ for his daughter. Presumably that would be what suited him best. Ramsay met Margaret on a return trip to Edinburgh in 1751 – his studio practice has been based in London since 1738, and his first wife, Anne Bayne, had died in childbirth in 1743. The couple fell rapidly in love. Knowing that her father would never approve, they eloped the following year, and were married in the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. Her father never forgave Ramsay, nor did he forgive his daughter for marrying beneath her, and against his will (but fortunately, unlike Romeo and Juliet, nobody died). Between 1754 and 1757 the couple travelled together in Italy, and in all probability this portrait was painted soon after their return, showing, as it does, Ramsay’s later, more delicate style.
It is currently on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as part of the exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness (this is a link to the exhibition itself), near to Ramsay’s portrait of Anne Bayne (his first wife), and separated by two paintings by Alison Watt – both of them variations on the theme of the rose. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday to have a closer look.