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Wunderkind lost

by Inga Walton, 6 July 2021

Self-portrait in white jacket , 1901-02 Hugh Ramsay
Self-portrait in white jacket , 1901-02 Hugh Ramsay. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Presented through the NGV Foundation by Nell Turnbull, niece of the artist and by her children John Fullerton, Patricia Fullerton and Fiona Fullerton, Founder Benefactors 2002

Any consideration of the short, but nonetheless robust, career of Australian artist Hugh Ramsay (1877–1906) is inevitably tinged with a certain melancholy that his initial promise and vigour was prematurely snuffed out.

This wistfulness permeated the first major retrospective of his work since 1992, at the National Gallery of Australia. Curated by Dr Deborah Hart, the comprehensive exhibition Hugh Ramsay (2019–20) brought together over 80 paintings and works on paper, displayed alongside drawings, sketchbooks and ephemera. The National Portrait Gallery loaned its three portraits by the artist for the show, works that provide an important insight into the development of Ramsay’s style while working in Europe.

Born in Glasgow, Hugh Ramsay was the fourth son of an eventual nine children born to John and his wife Margaret. The family emigrated to Melbourne in 1878, and Ramsay would display an affinity for music and art from a young age. Despite his success at school, Ramsay decided on the National Gallery School in 1894, against his father’s wishes. There, he encountered the strict regime of its Director (Lindsay) Bernard Hall (1859–1935), but also found encouragement from drawing master Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917). Ramsay made two attempts at the coveted Travelling Scholarship awarded by the school every three years, but came second in 1896 and 1899, to George Coates (1869–1930), and (Duncan) Max Meldrum (1875–1955), respectively.

Determined to pursue his métier by studying in Europe, Ramsay was assisted by artist Sir John Longstaff (1861–1941) who introduced him to arts patron and Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria, Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929). They organised a raffle of three works by Ramsay that secured his berth to London. He departed Australia in September 1900, three days before Federation was proclaimed. After visiting relatives in Scotland and staying with friends in London, Ramsay arrived in Paris in January 1901. He knew other Australians there, and accepted an offer from James S MacDonald (1878–1952), later Director of both the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1929–36) and Victoria (1936–41), to share his studio in Montparnasse.

Ramsay painted American art student Maud Keller, whom MacDonald married in 1904, as A lady in blue (1902), describing the work to his sister Madge (1883–1941) as the ‘best thing I’ve done’. MacDonald appears as a mere pictorial foil in the background, gazing at his fiancée, who dominates the composition. More of a still life than a conventional portrait, Keller is depicted in striking profile, her attention transfixed by something out of the frame. A book and a violin, resting on a low table nearby, reflect the importance of musical and social gatherings to the camaraderie that developed between the neighbours at Boulevard St. Jacques. Ramsay’s first major acknowledgement came when – having been in Paris only a few months – his Portrait of James S MacDonald (1901) was selected to hang in the Old Salon of April 1901.

The three Ramsay works in the National Portrait Gallery Collection capture both his excitement at being part of the artistic milieu in Paris, and his sense of liberation at being able to develop his work unencumbered by other constraints. One of over a dozen self-portraits and studies he produced, Self portrait (Full length in front of easel) (1901–02), shows Ramsay in casual attire, sleeves rolled up and trousers tucked into long boots. He pauses, as though his concentration is momentarily broken, one leg slightly forward indicating his engagement with the unseen painting. In the background, canvases are stacked, some framed and facing out, others with their backs to the viewer, attesting to the artist’s dedication.

1 Portrait of Ambrose Patterson, 1901-1902. 2 Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba, 1902. Both Hugh Ramsay.

The peripatetic career of Ambrose Patterson (1877–1967), Ramsay’s fellow student at the National Gallery School, would lead him to an eventual position as Professor of Art at the University of Washington, Seattle. In Paris for his second round of study, Patterson was sponsored by the renowned soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931), whose sister Isabella (1866–1950) was married to Patterson’s brother Thomas. Ramsay’s studio was near that of Patterson’s, who shared his with the American Impressionist painter Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874–1939). Working in such proximity, the artists shared compositional ideas, and sometimes used each other as subjects.

One of two full-length works Ramsay produced of his friend, Portrait of Ambrose Patterson (1901–02) depicts its subject sitting sideways on a chair, arm draped over its back, brushes clutched in his hand. Patterson’s twisting posture, which emphasises his long neck and strong features, was less prominent in the original context. Ramsay gifted the work to Patterson, who later stored it in Belgium where it was subsequently damaged. Years later, Patterson cut the canvas down to the current, much tighter iteration that makes the composition seem out of proportion. Ramsay’s standing within this close group of expatriates was confirmed when he made a spectacular début at the New Salon of March 1902, with four paintings accepted. In a further distinction, usually reserved for members or associates of the Société des Artistes Français, Ramsay’s paintings were all hung ‘on the line’ (at eye level).

In gratitude for Ramsay’s advice and guidance about his own work, Patterson arranged an introduction to Melba, who agreed to sit for Ramsay. Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba (1902) was produced in Ramsay’s studio in March, and the artist would comment of his sitter, ‘She was intensely sympathetic, and I quite fell in love with her ... She actually sat for half an hour for me, to do a sketch, but I was a bit flabbergasted and too nervous to do a chef d’œuvre [masterpiece].’ Impressed with Ramsay’s diligence and growing reputation, the prima donna invited him to paint her in London, with all the social cachet that implied. The small study Sketch of Nellie Melba (1902), painted in the drawing room of her Great Cumberland Place mansion, is all that remains of this brief, halcyon period when Ramsay was on the cusp of realising his aspirations.

Staying with Sir John Longstaff, Ramsay was making the most of his time in London. He had four paintings accepted for the British Colonial Art Exhibition, but then became acutely ill. Diagnosed with the incipient tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, Ramsay’s doctors felt that a combination of two harsh winters in Paris, poor nutrition and overwork had damaged his health. Melba advanced Ramsay the funds for his immediate return to Melbourne, which was thought to be a better climate for recovery. Writing to his Scottish cousin John Lennie in June 1902, Ramsay’s despondency about his enforced retreat was palpable: ‘Just when I have absolute success within my grasp, just when I see the probabilities of my being a successful painter, that it should all be snatched from my grasp’.

After sixteen years overseas, Melba’s triumphant return to her namesake town a month later would also provide a boost to her protégé. In the midst of her national tour, Melba generously invited Ramsay to hold an exhibition at ‘Myoora’, the Toorak mansion she had leased from MP Robert Harper (1842–1919). Comprising 38 works, this became Ramsay’s only solo show in his lifetime, and demonstrated the extent of his accomplishments since his departure for Europe. One of the three new paintings it included, The mandolin (c.1903), is a portrait of his youngest sibling Jessie (1888–1910), seated in a wicker chair with the instrument resting in her lap. Jessie’s pensive expression belies her anxiety for an adored brother, whom she would nurse throughout his final illness. She herself contracted typhoid in October 1905, and, with her resistance weakened, also fell victim to tuberculosis. Jessie succumbed four years later; their younger brother Tom (1885–1919) would also die of the disease.

1 Miss Nellie Patterson, 1903 Hugh Ramsay. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1966. 2 David Mitchell Esq. 1903 Hugh Ramsay. Castlemaine Art Museum, Victoria. Gift of Dame Nellie Melba, 1924.

During her extended visit, Melba selected a head study of Ambrose Patterson in discharge of Ramsay’s travel debt. She then commissioned Ramsay to paint a portrait of her niece, Miss Nellie Patterson (1903), and one of her father, David Mitchell (1829–1916). Mitchell was master builder responsible for several Melbourne landmarks, including the Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton (1880). A reticent man, he had also recently suffered a stroke and was prone to dozing off during the sittings. To manage these difficulties, Ramsay depicted the family patriarch half-length and seated. David Mitchell, Esq. (1903) is an affecting and dignified tribute to a man whose gnarled hands, clasped in his lap, remind the viewer of his decades of civic contribution.

The full-length Lady with A fan (1904) is the last portrait Ramsay
made of his putative fiancée Lischen Muller (c.1885–1962) whom he met in 1899, and who posed for his work Consolation (1899–1901), which is partially in view behind her in the portrait. A work of great pathos, Lady with A fan was painted in the dining room of ‘Clydebank’, the Ramsay family home at Essendon, and includes heirlooms from both their families. Muller holds the titular fan inherited from her mother, the German Countess Wilhelmina von Zeuner, who died of cancer in May 1903. The care of Muller’s younger brothers, Felix (a precocious child pianist) and Jim, fell to her; their distraught father Frederick died three years later. Her doleful expression reflects the burden of responsibility that was now hers, as she regards the invalid Ramsay, whose continued artistic exertions defied his doctor’s instructions.

Although the setting of the work reinforces the idea of familial harmony and their eventual union, it was not to be. Ramsay paints the denouement of their relationship with exquisite care, a visual testament to his fidelity. Perhaps in an attempt to spare her further grief, or on medical advice, Ramsay broke off his engagement to Muller in August 1904. His artistic apotheosis, Two girls in white (1904), would be another resplendent tribute to the devoted women in Ramsay’s life. Taking inspiration from Symphony in white no. 3 (1865–67) by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), his sisters Madge and Nell (1879–1943) are luminous in their finery. In Ramsay’s preferred narrative they have all returned to the drawing room after a scintillating evening, perhaps in London, or even Paris. Ramsay offers to posterity a version of the life he was denied – one where the scourge of illness is banished, and those closest to him bask in the reflected glory of his certain success and perpetual renown.

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Hugh Ramsay

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