Historical etched portraits by Dalkeith artist return home for exhibition

An exhibition of 18th and 19th century etched portraits by celebrated local artist John Kay opens at Dalkeith Museum on Saturday as part of Midlothian Doors Open Day.

By Kevin Quinn
Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 5:00 am
Anthony Kirk, who donated the prints for the John Kay exhibition at Dalkeith Museum.
Anthony Kirk, who donated the prints for the John Kay exhibition at Dalkeith Museum.

John Kay (1742 -1826) was a portrait etcher and miniature painter born near the southern edge of Dalkeith in the area then known as Gibraltar.

It is estimated that he etched about nine hundred copper plates depicting personalities from all aspects of Edinburgh society including Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, James Hutton – the founder of modern geology, and the world famous economist Adam Smith.

Some of these prints are included in the exhibition at Dalkeith Museum which now, along with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of New York, proudly exhibits its own collection. Appropriately, Kay’s self-portrait is included alongside portraits of other characters who either lived or worked in Dalkeith including town crier Beety Dick, piper Old Geordie Syme, Miss Sibilla Hutton and the Rev. Alexander King of the Relief Congregation of Dalkeith.

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A self portrait print by John Kay.

In the words of Alexander Moffat, one of Scotland’s leading portrait painters: “John Kay was an etcher of modern life in Scotland’s capital city. The great strength of his art lies in his particular vision of his own society and in his ability to portray people in a simple, yet potent manner.

"His portraits are mainly of respectable citizens – doctors, lawyers, ministers – but he also depicted a number of well known sympathisers with revolutionary France, which suggests he may have been something of a radical.

“There is, throughout all of his work, a gentle humanity and a sense of humour that makes his view of the world well worth investigating.”

The collection has been donated by Anthony Kirk from Bonnyrigg, in memory of Joseph Dempsey, his art master at St. David’s High School from 1962-1968, who supported and encouraged Kirk’s desire to attend Art School.

It is also given in appreciation of Midlothian Education Committee who awarded Kirk a bursary in 1968 to attend Newcastle College of Art.

John Kay and Anthony Kirk – from Dalkeith to New York to Dalkeith Museum – opens at Dalkeith Museum on Saturday from 10.30am- 3.30pm and thereafter every Wednesday 11am- 3pm