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A Scottish master of caricature

Bevis Hiller on a new collection of John Kay's artworks

18 March 2008

12:00 AM

18 March 2008

12:00 AM

John Kay: A Series of Original Portraits and Etchings Alan Bell

Birlinn, Edinburgh, pp.976, 200

If, in Victorian Britain, you did not fall in with the oppressive religiosity that prevailed, you were in danger of becoming a pariah, like Charles Bradlaugh in politics and T. H. Huxley in science.

If, in 20th-century Britain, you did not subscribe to abstract expressionism, Dada urinals, Pop Art, Op Art, minimalism, ‘installations’ and every subsequent development (I am tempted to say imposture), you were likely to become a cultural pariah. The arts establishment was very like the Victorian religious establishment. It too had — and has — its high priests, with Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate as its Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury; its anathemas and excommunications. It too had its mystique, its articles to be taken on faith: for example, the notion that when you stood in front of a Rothko of a dark red smudge on top of a paler smudge, or indeed a totally black Rothko, you were being granted some sublime, transcendental experience.

Born in 1940, and disaffected from almost all contemporary art (excepting most of Hockney, Lucian Freud and James Reeve), I felt resentful at being destined to grow up in this artistic swamp. I thought I would have been much more at home with the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists.

There was, however, one shining exception to the artistic degringolade: the cartoonists. In such men as Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Thelwell, Wally Fawkes (‘Trog’), Bill Tidy, Larry and Peter Brookes (whose work I was already admiring on New Statesman covers in the 1970s, long before his present avatar as a superb satirist on The Times) we have had cartoonists to rank with James Gillray of the 18th century or Sir John Tenniel of the 19th. If the criteria were solely aesthetic, I would far rather own a Searle than a Rothko.

In modern art, distortion is mandatory, arbitrary and ruinous. For the cartoonist, it is simply the key aspect of his métier. Quakers might disagree, but to me there is a difference between using a weapon in a just war and using it in a brutal and pointless murder — paintless, in the case of ‘conceptual’ art.

My feeling about modern art has been less distaste than despair. I think it was that feeling of cultural exile that caused me to write, in 1970, a book on Cartoons and Caricatures. Though it is on record that W. H. Auden liked it, it is not a favourite of mine among my 30 books. I tackled the subject too much head-on, simply tracing the history of that art-form from Greek vase-painting, via the nasty caricature of Isaac of Norwich and other Jews on a Rotulus Judeorum of 1133, through to the living luminaries. I wish that instead I had taken themes — religion, war, sex, fashion and so on — and illustrated how different satirists, in different centuries, had dealt with them.

One benefit of the approach I took was that the minor masters did not get missed out. In covering the 18th century, I did not just show the marvellous virtuoso work of Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson; I also gave houseroom to three lesser figures: the Englishmen Henry William Bunbury and John Collier (‘Tim Bobbin’) and the Scot John Kay. They came from three different strata of society: respectively, the upper, middle and working classes. Bunbury was the son of a baronet. The Derby was named the Derby on the toss of a coin: if the Earl of Derby had lost, the race would have been known as the Bunbury — a name nicked by Wilde for the malade imaginaire in The Importance of Being Earnest. Collier, born near Manchester, was the son of a parson-schoolmaster. John Kay’s father was a stonemason.

In 1970 I wrote:

Bunbury … was a friend of Goldsmith, Garrick and Reynolds, and a favourite of the Duke and Duchess of York, to whom he was appointed equerry in 1787. He made the Grand Tour in France and Italy and studied drawing in Rome — although one would hardly guess it from the bucolic crudity of his pictorial style.

I added:

If Bunbury, with all his chances to see the masterpieces of Italian art, never rose above a rough-and-ready hacks’ style, we cannot expect from contemporary self-made caricaturists more than a tempered primitivism. John Kay and ‘Tim Bobbin’ were both primitives, in that their style had that simple, mystic, John Clare quality which comes of self-education within limited horizons, yet both were capable of greater subtlety than Bunbury.

I described John Kay’s career. He was born near Dalkeith in 1742 and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to a barber there. He stayed for six years, and spent a further seven years as a journeyman barber in Edinburgh. In 1771 he purchased the freedom of that city and was enrolled as a member of the Society of Surgeon-Barbers. He set up business on his own, and devoted his spare time to portrait caricature. He found a patron in William Nisbet of Dirleton; Nisbet died in 1784 and his heir settled £20 a year on Kay. In 1785 Kay retired from hairdressing and took up caricature full time. The earliest of his dated etchings is a self- portrait, inscribed 1786. He sold his etchings from a little shop in Edinburgh. He etched plates of almost every notable Scotsman of his time, with the surprising exception of Robert Burns. His etchings of Adam Smith are, with the posthumous medallions by Tassie, the only authentic likenesses. Kay died in 1826.

In 1837-38 a quarto edition of Kay’s plates, under the title A series of original portraits and caricature etchings by the late John Kay, miniature painter, Edinburgh, was published in monthly numbers by Hugh Paton of Edinburgh, who styled himself ‘Carver and Gilder to Her Majesty Queen Victoria and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent’. With the caricatures Paton printed a commentary on the figures depicted, based partly on anecdotes collected by Kay’s widow, and put into good shape by an experienced journalist, James Paterson. No fewer than 526 subscribers were attracted, and more than 860 sets were sold.

It is this mammoth work that the present publishers have reissued, in two huge volumes. It is a heroic enterprise. The copy reproduced is an original subscription copy that belonged to the second Viscount Melville — the son of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, who is caricatured in volume one. The second Viscount was a school friend of Walter Scott. He was First Lord of the Admiralty under Lord Liverpool and responsible for the ‘management’ of Scotland.

For anybody looking through the volumes, there are two joys: the drawings and the commentary. Alan Bell, who knows his 18th-century Edinburgh, contributes an acute biographical and critical introduction, in which he nicely describes the etchings as ‘highly formalised and lying at ease on the border between portrayal and caricature’. There is a naivety about them, but Kay’s contemporaries agreed that they were excellent likenesses of their subjects — one cannot say ‘sitters’, as few people actually posed for him; he observed and sketched them on the hoof. ‘Quaint’ is an adjective twice applied to Kay’s etchings by the Dictionary of National Biography; and certainly he revelled in eccentricity and the grotesque; but his fastidious homespun line conveys intimacy in a way that a gallery oil painting might not. It is the equivalent, in art, of someone like Barbara Pym in literature.

The aim of the commentary writers seems to have been to extract the maximum of entertainment out of each character. James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-99), the judge and philosopher, is thought by some to have anticipated the theories of Darwin; but this is how he is treated in the Kay book:

He was not a little remarkable for … the strangeness and oddity of some of his opinions and sentiments. The most remarkable of these, as recorded by himself in his celebrated work on the Origin and Progress of Language, is
the assertion that ‘the human race were originally gifted with tails’! It was an allusion to this extraordinary discovery, that Lord Kames, to whom he would on a certain occasion have conceded precedence, declined it, saying, ‘By no means, my lord, you must walk first that I may see your tail!’

One of Kay’s caricatures shows Monboddo with the judge and author Lord Kames (1696-1782), but the commentary misses the best Kames story: how in 1780 he greeted a verdict against Matthew Hay, an old chess partner found guilty of murder, with the quip: ‘That’s checkmate to you, Matthew!’ In the same etching is Hugo Arnot (1749-86), author of the satirical Essay on Nothing (1776). Kay again caricatured Monboddo in 1799, the last year of the judge’s long life. The accompanying text records how Monboddo ‘and his lovely daughter’ had patronised Burns when the poet ‘arrived from the plough in Ayrshire’, and how Burns had celebrated the girl’s beauty in the stanza beginning

Fair Burnett strikes the adoring eye,

Heaven’s beauties on my fancy shine…

In a plate whimsically entitled ‘The Sapient Septemvirii: King’s College, Aberdeen’, Kay depicted the Church of Scotland minister and university professor Alexander Gerard (1728-95). In 1759 Gerard was awarded a gold medal by the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture for a significant Essay on Taste. Neither the Kay book nor the Dictionary of National Biography mentions that, in the competition, Gerard beat the painter Allan Ramsay, who knew a thing or two about taste.

Libraries which invest in these handsome volumes will be giving everyone a treat, not just historians of 18th-century Scotland. I have only one minor complaint: Alan Bell’s introduction (but not the rest of the text) is printed in a very faint type. In Anthony Powell’s novel Hearing Secret Harmonies, the effete theatre director Norman Chandler, asked about his suit-material, says: ‘The colour’s named Pale Galilean.’ That would be an apt name for the printing of this book’s intro. As Humphrey Bogart says, confronting a villain: ‘It’s not you I dislike. I just don’t like your type.’

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