Artist's Biography

Hugh Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 25 May, 1877. He relocated to Melbourne in Australia with his family the following year in 1878. Ramsay’s father, a pastor and a tradesman, moved to Australia in search of a better life for his wife and their five children.

Hugh Ramsay attended Essendon Grammar and was dux of the school in 1891. In 1894 when he was 17 years old, Ramsay enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria School and studied under the respected artists Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. Ramsay excelled, winning First Prize at the school for both painting and drawing.

While at the NGV School, he was introduced to the work of the neo-classicists and old master artists, particularly Diego Velásquez, who was to become a key influence for him. Ramsay also developed a passion for the poetry of John Keats (1795-1821), the romantic English poet.

In 1896, Ramsay’s mother passed away. In 1897, Hugh visited his brother in Tasmania, where he painted landscapes. That year he forgoed two terms at the NGV School and rented a studio at 312 Flinders Street in Melbourne, where he gave art lessons.

That year he painted his now famous painting “Jessie with Doll” and at the NGV School’s Annual Student Exhibition and won 1st prize for two paintings. The following year, in 1898 at the Annual Student Exhibition he won 1st prize for a painting and drawing.

In 1899 Ms Lischen Muller began attending classes at Ramsay’s studio and become the model for his Keats-inspired painting “Consolation”, with his friend the artist, George Bell as the other subject. At the Annual Student Exhibition he won 1st prize for a painting, and was runner-up to Max Meldrum in the Travelling Scholarship Competition.

In 1899 Ramsay left the Gallery School. Encouraged by fellow artist John Longstaff, he travelled to Europe in September 1900, financed by selling his paintings through an Art Union raffle, and with financial support from his older brother. He became unofficially engaged to Lischen Muller before sailing to London aboard the SS Persic. En-route Ramsay struck up a close friendship with George Lambert, who would also become a significant artist.

In 1900 Ramsay visited Scotland, his country of birth. After returning to London, he moved to Paris in January 1901 and enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, joined by George Lambert. At Colarossi’s, Ramsay was exposed to the Louvre collections and exhibitions of the work of his American and French contemporaries. He developed a love for the work of the great American artist, James Abbot McNeil Whistler.

In Paris in 1901, Ramsay worked incredibly hard, painting from dawn till late into the night, experimenting mainly with self-portraiture. That year he submitted two paintings to the Old Salon, with his painting of MacDonald accepted – a great honour of the time. The following year three portraits and a still life by Ramsay were accepted by the progressive ‘New Salon’.

Ramsay’s reputation began to bloom in Europe, and his Australian art world connections gave him access to important social circles in London, notably expatriate opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, who commissioned Ramsay to paint her portrait. Ramsay travelled to London to begin Melba’s portrait.

Sadly, Ramsay’s long work hours and his impoverished living conditions in Partis, proved to be his undoing, and whilst in London he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was forced to return to Melbourne with Melba’s portrait unfinished. He arrived home in August 1902 when he was 25 years old to rest at ‘Clydebank’, his family’s estate in Essendon.

That year Ramsay painted portraits of  his sisters Jessie and Madge and his fiancé, Lischen Muller. Melba, during a tour in Australia, held a three-day exhibition in December 1902 of Ramsay’s works at “Myoora”, her house in Toorak, Melbourne, which was to be the only solo show of Ramsay’s work during his lifetime.

In 1903, six of Ramsay’s works were hung at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Melba commissioned him to paint her father and niece, Nellie Patterson. Despite his poor health, Ramsay continued to work and in 1904 he exhibited five works at the Victorian Artists Society Annual Exhibition, including “Lady with a Fan” and “The Sisters”, some of his last paintings that are considered amongst his greatest works.  “The Sisters” (also known as “Two Girls in White”) is now held in the Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

As Ramsay’s health began to decline, he broke off his engagement to Lischen Muller.  From January to August 1905, he was confined to bed and died at on 5 March 1906 at Clydesdale when he was only 28 years old.

Sir Baldwin Spencer wrote in “The Argus” in 1918 that Hugh Ramsay was: ‘undoubtedly one of the biggest artists in portraiture and figure painting that Australia has produced’.

A Memorial Exhibition of Ramsay’s work was staged at the Fine Arts Society in 1918 and a retrospective exhibition of Ramsay’s work was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943.

Hugh Ramsay’s gift for rendering subjects with great skill, confidence and sensitivity marked him as one of the most significant portraitists in Australian art. Ramsay also worked in other genres, including narrative and mythological subjects, still life, urban scenes and landscapes. He is perhaps best remembered by “The Lady in Blue (Mr and Mrs J S MacDonald)”  from 1902, and “The Foil” from 1901, which are among the highlights of the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection.

Despite his tragically short life, Ramsay’s achievements, and impact both overseas and in Australia were remarkable given his short period of activity and relative inexperience. His exceptional talent raises the question of what might have been possible if he had been able to reach his full potential.