Portrait of Mary Lillian Scott
by Allan Ramsay
Scottish/Worked in London and Edinburgh, 1713-1784; SN 387, oil on canvas

By Allen Miller. April 11, 2000


  • Composition – Before us we see Mary Lillian Scott, a young woman, standing erect, formally, but not really stiffly. She seems to be in a very grand room of a classical design. She is wearing a relatively plain black hat and an absolutely stunning dress of silvery-gray silk with lace trim and a blue bow.  It almost seems like you could feel the stiffness, the weight of the silk and hear the hiss of the silk brushing against her petticoats as she rearranges her skirt. The light falls on a small area in the center of the canvas, highlighting Mary’s face, shoulders and the upper portions of her skirt – giving the subject of the portrait the attention she deserves. The fact that the subject is approximately life size and regards us from the forward edge of the space in which she stands enhances the reality of the scene.
  • Mary’s portrait, particularly the areas of the face and hands, is executed with incredible care to detail. The artist, Allan Ramsay, worked so painstakingly that it is virtually impossible to tell where one brush stroke ends and another begins. What we see, even upon the closest inspection, is a smooth, soft face bathed in light.
  • Now, contrast that with the way Mary’s skirts have been painted. If you take a closer look you suddenly see something completely different. Those elegant folds of silk are painted with big, fat, thick, rough brush strokes that seem to have been laid on with a housepainter’s brush. What an incredible illusion: the artist has changed two-dimensional canvas into three-dimensional silk so real you think you can feel and hear it.  All with a few almost violent swipes of the paint brush.
  • His portrait of Mary is natural and honest. She is not idealized. She is who she is, the proper, cultured, elegant, slim, youthful, handsome, but far from beautiful daughter of a wealthy Scottish family.


  • Allan Ramsay, the leading portraitist of his time in England, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1713. He was very much a man of his age.
  • His father (also Allan Ramsay) was a leading Scottish poet. Growing up in the midst of the thriving intellectual community of Edinburgh, and encouraged by his father, he showed early talent, producing, at the age of fifteen, a pencil drawing was used as the frontispiece for a volume of his father’s poetry.
  • After studying in London for four years he left for the “required” grand tour of the continent in 1736, stopping briefly in Paris and later enduring shipwreck off of Pisa on the way to Rome and Naples.  In Italy he studied with several masters (including Imeriali, Batoni and Solimena) while earning a living painting the portraits of the many Englishmen on the grand tour.
  • Upon returning to London he encountered rapid recognition and success. At first his style had a touch of the baroque picked up from his teachers in Italy, but it was overwhelmingly natural, empirical, a result of the intellectual trend to observe and record honestly. His style becomes more and more natural, frank and honest, focusing on his ability to make his sitters living individuals, while maintaining an elegant design to his work. His later works from the mid-1760’s are characterized by an increasing simplicity and an incredible subtlety of light.
  • The direction of this evolution makes sense if you consider Ramsay had a lifelong association with a wide array of the leading artists and intellectuals of his time (William Aikman, David Hume, Adam Smith [Select Society], William Hogarth, Samuel Johnson, Jean Jacque Rousseau and Voltaire). He wrote extensively on a variety of subjects including aesthetics, politics and literature (most famous work was Dialogue of Taste, published in 1751).
  • His love of drawing – and his ability to do it extraordinarily well - would stick with him throughout his life. It was common for him to make extensive preliminary drawing of various areas of his canvases before beginning his work in oils.
  • He was a major influence on an entire generation of English portraitists, including Raeburn, Gainsborough and Reynolds (later his primary rival) all of whom are exhibited in gallery 18.
  • In 1761 became the primary painter to King George III of England, a position he held until he crippled his arm falling from a ladder in 1773 ending his professional career.
  • He spent the last ten years of his life writing, traveling and even resumed drawing during two trips to Italy. He died in 1784.
  • Perhaps because he remained aloof from the Royal Academy and the Society of Artists, and perhaps because he was a Scotsman, he fell into obscurity soon after his death. His reputation only became resurrected after World War II.  This makes John Ringling’s acquisition of this exquisite portrait all the more admirable.