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John Kay

1742 – 1826

John Kay (1742–1826), caricaturist and painter of miniatures, was born near Dalkeith, Scotland, and started out his working life at thirteen as an apprentice to local barber. At nineteen he moved to Edinburgh to continue his trade, joining the corporation of barber-surgeons. Around the same time he began producing caricatures of Edinburgh notables and identities, exhibiting his work in his barber shop until 1785, when an annuity from a patron enabled him give up barbering altogether and work as an artist full-time. Completely self-taught, Kay engraved almost 900 plates between 1784 and 1822, and also produced many portrait miniatures. He sold his work from the print shop he established in Parliament Close in 1785, many of his caricatured portraits allegedly being purchased by their subjects just so that they could then destroy them. In 1837–38, some years after his death, Kay’s prints were published in two volumes as A series of original portraits and caricature etchings by the late John Kay … with biographical sketches and illustrated anecdotes, with further editions appearing in 1842 and 1877. Providing a quirky, alternative record of Edinburgh in its golden age, Kay’s caricatures are represented in collections such as those of the National Library of Australia, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery, London, which holds nearly 300 examples of his work.

Updated 2018