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7 Jun 2024

New Ramsay exhibition arrives at the Georgian House

Written by Paul Williams
Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion at the Georgian House


Three speakers: Antonia Laurence-Allen (Regional Curator); Lesley Scott (Regional Conservator); Sheonagh Martin (Property Manager)

Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion is at the Georgian House.
This is an exhibition about Allan Ramsay's paintings but particularly paintings of women, and look at what the women are wearing and why they're wearing certain clothing, jewellery, hairstyles. And in doing that investigate the trades that were in Edinburgh during the mid-18th century.
The focus for me is to create a very intimate exhibition, where people can slow down. They can read; they can study the pictures in some detail -- there's a lot to take in here. And you can come back once, twice to really take in the full scope.
We have a couple of QR codes: one provides access to a film that we made. That shows an imaginary journey of a woman going down the High Street, buying accessories for her dress.
And then the other one will access a story about the dress-making.

All of the canvases -- the paintings within the frames -- have all had some basic cleaning where we've just dusted them down using vacuums.
Our Collections Care teams and our interns and our volunteers have helped with that. And then where we've needed specialist help, to actually get a little bit more into the more invasive cleaning, specialised cleaning, our painting conservators have been in. They've very carefully taken off the first layer of varnish just to clean up some of the paintings, but we've been very passive.
A lot of the pictures have just had very basic intervention.

Absolutely everyone from the property, from all the staff to the volunteers, have been involved in the exhibition in one way or another.
The mid-18th-century sack-back gown is absolutely stunning.
You will not get another opportunity to see this gown out on open display and look at something up close without touching it.
It is really, really special.

One of the most brilliant things about this exhibition is the paintings look fabulous in this space at the Georgian House.
They're really set off in a beautiful way. It's very quiet; it's very contemplative.
I really advise people to come and see them here, but what's even more amazing is if you go then to the properties where they come from because they transform into something completely different.
It's really vital to see them at home, so to speak, as well, so I encourage people to go to the House of Dun, to Leith Hall, to Newhailes, House of the Binns, Hill of Tarvit, and the Georgian House to see these paintings and to see how they settle in their home environment.

A new exhibition of portraits by Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713–84) decodes fashion in the 1700s and the crucial role it played for Edinburgh’s high society women during this period.

Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion showcases the work of one of the finest 18th-century painters of female portraits. At the Georgian House in Edinburgh, we have brought together our fine collection by Allan Ramsay for the first time, following a successful display of Sir Henry Raeburn’s work last year. Covering a 30-year period of Ramsay’s career, the exhibition illustrates his skill at capturing the clothing, accessories and popular trends of the time, while examining both the naturalistic style and imaginary elements found in his paintings.

Alongside the curated selection of portraits on display, this intimate exhibition also features a rare 18th-century dress, from Newhailes House near Musselburgh, which is also in our care. During the first week of the exhibition, our volunteers will recreate a replica of a 1760s gown, modelled from a garment worn by Katherine Ann Mure. She was painted by Ramsay in 1769 and features in the exhibition. This replica dress will be made in the drawing room at the Georgian House before going into the exhibition on 14 June.

Regional Curator Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen has brought this exhibition together and said: ‘We’re excited to welcome visitors to our new exhibition – Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion – and showcase this prominent Scottish artist, while highlighting how his career was forged in Edinburgh with the help of his father and a growing fashion for portraiture. The portraits in this exhibition reveal Ramsay’s artistic skill and ability to capture real fashions with imaginary flourishes, in a way that epitomised the true likeness of his sitters while promoting their standing in Edinburgh society.

“Fashion and clothing played an important role in communicating subtle signs of one’s status during the mid-1700s. Being well dressed in silks, satins and linens elevated women in polite society and helped portray wealth and social standing.”
Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen
Regional Curator

Antonia continued: ‘By capturing popular styles of dress, Ramsay promoted the sitter’s cultural sophistication and their progressive ideals of taste. This meant their portrait could help them confidently present a contemporary vision of themselves to their peers.

‘The exhibition has been designed to highlight our magnificent Ramsay collection, which has never been brought all together before. We’ve also commissioned new research to map the trades dealing in textiles, clothing and accessories in Edinburgh. This has provided a rich picture of what it was like for a woman to leave her town home and engage with shopkeepers up and down the High Street. We have plotted these locations on a 1742 map, collated adverts that detail how traders promoted their wares, and created a short film that imagines a lady’s journey buying cloth and accessories.’

View the film and find out more about the exhibition

A map showing 18th-century Edinburgh and the many businesses involved in the fashion and textile trade hangs on a green wall, with the portrait of a woman next to it.

Antonia added: ‘Many shoppers today are concerned with sustainable fashion and will find in this exhibition similar themes that were central to consumers in the 18th century. While milliners and tailors were busy altering gowns and jackets, drapers and merchants sold cloth, ribbons and lace to upcycle old ensembles.

‘As well as showing the content in the exhibition, we wanted to demonstrate how dresses were made to measure and designed to be altered, as fashions and a woman’s body changed. There was no ideal figure, but there was an ideal silhouette. To illustrate this, a group of volunteers are being led by dress historian Rebecca Olds to create a replica 1760s gown. Throughout the opening week of the exhibition (8–14 June), they will be stitching and constructing the dress in the drawing room at the Georgian House. We hope this might inspire visitors to re-use and recycle items from their own wardrobe. After the exhibition closes in late November, this dress will take on a new lease of life in our recreated 1766 draper’s shop, at Gladstone’s Land on the Royal Mile.’

The Georgian House’s popular Wednesday evening lecture series also returns this summer for Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion. It includes a range of stories about fashion traders and retailers, silk dresses and linen undergarments, global and domestic trade routes, and the women and men of Enlightenment Edinburgh.

Find out more about Georgian House events

A green-walled exhibition room with a polished wooden floor. Oil portraits of Georgian women hang on the walls. A grand floral Georgian dress is displayed on a mannequin in the corner.
The Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion exhibition opens on 7 June at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.

The exhibition has provided opportunities for remedial conservation of Ramsay’s paintings and their frames, for two rare Newhailes textiles, and for professional development for our Collections Care staff and volunteers. Regional Conservator Lesley Scott explained: ‘This exhibition has supported our charity’s work to ensure our collections are stable and conserved, and Ramsay’s paintings and frames have offered opportunities to upskill our Collections Care teams through workshops and conservation in action at the Georgian House.

‘It is thanks to the tremendous support from the specialist conservators we work with in Scotland that we have been able to achieve this, as they were willing to share their skills and experience to aid team development and understanding of how each item was made, to support each one’s longer-term care.

‘This exhibition brings these mid-1700 portraits to new audiences, and I would encourage everyone to take the rare opportunity to see these collections in the same space, to admire the artistry. After the exhibition closes in November, we would very much encourage our members and supporters to see the portraits return to drawing rooms and dining rooms in places like Hill of Tarvit in Cupar and House of the Binns near Linlithgow.’

Philip Long OBE, Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland, added: ‘We’re delighted to bring together a selection of portraits by Allan Ramsay from across the National Trust for Scotland’s collections for the first time, and to invite our members, visitors and other supporters to experience this intimate exhibition. They are able to immerse themselves in the work of one of Scotland’s greatest artists and gain a better understanding of fashion’s importance to society. I’m grateful for the generous support from our members and supporters, to allow us to continue our vital work to care for, protect and share Scotland’s rich cultural heritage, now and for future generations to enjoy.’

Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion opens on 7 June at Georgian House in Edinburgh and runs until 24 November 2024. The exhibition is included with admission to the Georgian House, which is free for members. You can find out more about the exhibition and how to book events on the Georgian House webpage.

Exhibitions like Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion support our vision to care for, share and protect Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage and contribute to our engagement objectives to provide access and enjoyment for everyone.