This article is about the painter. For his father, the Scots poet, see Allan Ramsay (1686–1758)
At 13, Ramsay became a pupil at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, and in 1729 he entered the Academy of St Luke, but from the age of 20 he studied in London under the Swedish painter Hans Huyssing, and at the St Martin's Lane Academy. In 1736 he travelled to Rome and Naples, where he worked under Francesco Solimena and Imperiali (Francesco Fernandi). On his return in 1738 he settled in Edinburgh, attracting attention with his portrait of Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll, which was later used on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes. He established a studio in London, where he was employed by the Duke of Bridgewater. In 1739 he married Anne Bayne, the daughter of a professor of Scots law at Edinburgh University, Alexander Bayne of Rires (c. 1684–1737). None of their three children survived childhood, and Anne died on 4 February 1743 giving birth to the third of them.
One of his drawing pupils was Margaret Lindsay, eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick. He eloped with her, and on 1 March 1752 they married in the Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh. Ramsay already had to maintain a daughter from his previous marriage as well as two sisters, but he told Sir Alexander that he could provide Margaret with an annual income of £100, which would increase "as my affairs increase, and I thank God, they are in a way of increasing". He further stated that his only motive for the marriage was "my love for your Daughter, who, I am sensible, is entitled to much more than ever I shall have to bestow upon her". There were three surviving children, Amelia (1755–1813), Charlotte (1758–1818?), and John (1768–1845).
After working in Edinburgh in 1753–54, Ramsay and Margaret spent three years in Italy, going to Rome, Florence, Naples and Tivoli, researching, painting and drawing old masters, antiquities and archaeological sites. On his return Ramsay moved to London and bought a home in Soho Square. His portraits at this time included his new patron, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, and the Prince of Wales (later George III). In 1761 he was appointed principal "painter in ordinary" to George III, which upset his main rivals, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Soon afterwards he moved to a new studio in Harley Street. In 1773 he hurt his right arm when falling from a ladder, forcing him to retire from painting. He returned to Italy and, after touring the country for two years, settled on the island of Ischia and gradually resumed painting.
Ramsay painted many portraits of distinguished people in a style that anticipated that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, but his reputation rests more on his less formal studies. His portraits of women are noted for their warmth and tenderness, as well as for the technical facility with which lace and ruffles are reproduced.
He died at Dover on 10 August 1784.
- Ramsay to Lindsay, 31 March 1752, A. Smart, Allan Ramsay: painter, essayist, and man of the Enlightenment (1992), 96 n. 10