The portrait has a luminous quality and displays the natural sensitivity which Ramsay brings to much of his work, a quality noted by Horace Walpole who praised Ramsay for his delicacy and expressed the opinion that he was superior to Reynolds as a painter of women (for quotation, see Smart, A. ‘The Art of Allan Ramsay’ in Smart, A. and Marshall, R. (ed.), Allan Ramsay 1713-1785, Edinburgh, (1992) p.11).
Painter to King George III and widely recognised as one of the most talented portraitists of his generation, Allan Ramsay was born in Edinburgh in 1713. His father, also named Allan Ramsay, was a poet and playwright, best known as the author of The Gentle Shepherd (1725). Like many of the most prestigious portraitists of his age, the young Ramsay studied at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy in London, as well as training in the studio of Swedish painter Hans Hysing.
In 1736, Ramsay travelled to Italy for the first time, working at the French Academy in Rome under the instruction of Francesco Imperiali before moving to Naples, where he worked in the studio of Francesco Solimena.
Invigorated by his experience under the Italian-baroque masters on the continent, Ramsay returned to Britain in 1738 and set up his own portrait practice in Covent Garden. His work swiftly gained in popularity and he soon attained an impressive list of clients, including the Duke of Bridgewater, Sir Robert Walpole, the Lord Chancellor Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke and Dr. Richard Mead. As well as expanding his list of clients in London, Ramsay also retained his contacts in his native Edinburgh, where he continued to maintain a studio. His work proved particularly popular amongst the Scottish nobility and he received a number of important commissions from figures such as the Duke of Argyll and the Duke of Buccleuch.
Ramsay visited Italy for a second time from 1754 to 1757, and it was on his return to London in 1757 that he received his first commission from Lord Bute, tutor to the Prince of Wales, to paint the heir to the throne. In 1761, Ramsay was chosen to paint the Prince, now George III, and his wife Queen Charlotte in full state coronation robes. The works were a great success and Ramsay was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King in March 1767 and subsequently spent much of his time producing copies of his coronation portraits and other works for the royal family. Ramsay’s career in painting was halted by an injury to his arm, which he sustained from a fall from a ladder in 1773. A close friend of Dr. Johnson and David Hume, and correspondent of the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau, Ramsay spent his latter years following his intellectual and literary pursuits until his death in 1784.
Joseph Benwell was a draper, living in Eton. By 1773 he was treasurer of the Colnbrook Turnpike Commission and part of a local social circle that included the artist Paul Sandby. Sadly he was one of four diners who died, probably of food-poisoning in March 1773 after a dinner at the Castle Inn at Salt Hill, near Slough.
His will reveals him to have been a bachelor, with various nephews and nieces, but no wife or children.
By the time of his death he was living in Hurley, Berkshire, to which parish he left a small legacy for the relief of the poor.
Many thanks to John Adamson for his research into Joseph Benwell.