John Kay (1742-1826)

John Kay (1742-1826) was born near Dalkeith, then a village south of Edinburgh.  His father was a mason who died when John was six years old.  He was then sent to live with cousins in Leith where he was treated with considerable cruelty and had three near drowning experiences in the sea from which he was lucky to survive.  From an early age Kay showed a talent for drawing people and animals but received little encouragement or opportunity to develop his skill. At the age of thirteen he was bound as an apprentice to a barber in Dalkeith against his will, for he had wished to follow his father’s trade. On completion of his six year apprenticeship he moved to Edinburgh where he was employed as a barber.

At the age of twenty he married Lilly Steven, by whom he had eleven children, all of whom died in infancy except the eldest son William, who inherited his father’s talent for drawing.  In 1771 Kay paid £40 to join the Society of Barber Surgeons which entitled him to set up his own business. He prospered and acquired a number of the gentry among his customers. One of these, William Nisbet who lived at Archerfield House in Dirleton to the east of Edinburgh, befriended Kay and engaged him as a companion.  Nisbet encouraged Kay to develop his art and gave him the opportunity and financial support to pursue his interest. After Nisbet’s death in 1783, his son arranged for Kay to receive a pension of £20 a year for life in recognition of the care which he had given his father. By this time Kay had learned the skill of engraving and had begun to print his caricatures of local characters. These became so popular that by 1785 he was able to give up his hairdressing business and devote the rest of his days to his art.  He set up a print shop in 10 Parliament Square whose windows were filled with his latest productions ‘always a great attraction to idlers[1]’. His shop adjoined Forbes Bank.   

His caricatures display a remarkable skill in producing a likeness from casual observation for his subjects rarely sat for their portrait. Robert Chambers, who knew Kay and his prints very well, wrote: 

To speak of the portraits as caricatures, is doing them signal injustice.  They are the most exact and faithful likenesses that could have been represented by any mode of art.  He drew the man as he walked in the street everyday: his gait his costume, every peculiarity of his appearance done to a point, and no defect perceptible except the stiffness of the figures.[2]

Iain Gordon Brown wrote of his engravings:

Malice and venom were wholly absent from his innocent art: his achievement was to record in gentle, direct and personal way the foibles and oddities of real people…some widely famous…some merely ordinary and undistinguished, yet displaying certain characteristics that appealed to the caricaturist…. Verisimilitude was paramount and faithful likenesses resulted.[3]

Kay chose his subjects from notable citizens including lawyers, doctors and clergy and humbler individuals who displayed some unusual feature of interest such as gigantism, dwarfism, or longevity.  He was particularly attracted to those exhibiting eccentric behaviour and to notorious criminals.  Together they provide a fascinating record not only of these people but of their dress and the customs of the time. Chambers wrote: ‘it may with safety be affirmed that no city in the Empire can boast of so curious a chronicle’. 

It is curious that Kay did not include Sir Walter Scott among his caricatures for he must have been a very frequent visitor to Parliament Square in connection with his position as clerk to the Court of Session. Kay was of course very aware of Scott and engraved a miniature portrait of him which he included in a group of advocates of the time.

Engraving of Walter Scott by Kay.
Note the well defined stippling and linear lines which are characteristic of engraving rather than etching.

In old age Kay was described as ‘a slender, straight old man, of middle size and usually dressed in a garb of antique cut, of simple habits and quiet unassuming manners’.[4] His print shop was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1824, two years before his death in 1826, but his home in 227 High Street escaped and he opened a new shop in Princes Street in his last year.  He is buried in Greyfriar’s churchyard. A memorial plaque has recently been erected in his memory.

Publication of Kay’s engravings

The publisher, Archibald Constable, had planned to publish Kay’s engravings and Kay, who was keen to have a permanent record of his work, had drawn up descriptive notes of some of the characters in his prints, together with an autobiographical summary for this purpose.  Alas the financial crash of 1825 bankrupted Constable, who was unable to proceed with the project and the engravings were not published in Kay’s lifetime. 

The plates of his engravings were bought by Hugh Paton at an auction sale of his effects after the death of his widow in 1836. Paton was a supplier of artists’ materials and was appointed ‘carver and gilder’ to Queen Victoria. In 1837-9 he published 340 of Kay’s etchings in two volumes entitled A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings, by the late John Kay miniature painter, Edinburgh, with biographical sketches and illustrative anecdotes. (Referred to in this text as Kay’s Portraits). In an advertisement issued prior to publication Paton wrote that ‘The Publisher wishing to have the Work as complete as possible, will thankfully receive any authentic biographical or other interesting anecdotes of those enumerated in the following Catalogue’. The catalogue listed 356 engravings which had been prepared by Kay’s widow.[5]

Paton required an author to write the text and offered the job to James Paterson (1805-xxx), who had been introduced by his brother who was Paton’s apprentice.  Paterson accepted the task although the salary offered was only fifteen shillings a week, which he regarded as ‘a mere porter’s wage’. (Later it was increased to twenty-five shillings.)  Paterson made use of the notes prepared by Kay and also acknowledged the assistance of voluntary contributors, who may have responded to Paton’s advertisement. Paterson observed that ‘The events to which many of the Engravings[6] allude were fast receding into oblivion, and are only to be traced in the remembrance of a few old citizens, whose memories…. cling tenaciously to the past’.[7]  These ‘old citizens’ included Robert Chambers[8], David Laing[9] and William Smellie10]. Of these Smellie was the most useful; ‘He was a thorough chronicle of his time, and the Portraits are greatly indebted to him for much valuable information’.[11] Other sources included the publications, Caledonian Mercury, Courant, Scots Magazine and the Annual Register.

The work was edited by James Maidment (1793-1879), an advocate, friend of Sir Walter Scott and a keen antiquarian, who contributed footnotes to the text. Paterson got on well with Maidment whom he found pleasant and obliging. His notes were ‘much to the point’ and they became lifelong friends.  Paton, on the other hand, he grew to dislike, for Paton ‘a man of the world, but with no pretension to literature’ had the presumption to alter Paterson’s text and claimed to have had a hand in the compilation, much to Paterson’s annoyance. Paton may have exerted some editorial input, however, for he wrote:-

To those who have kindly supplied family information, and to the several literary and antiquarian gentlemen whom I have had occasion to consult, and who have, with much liberality, contributed to the historical, traditional, and local interest of the Work, my acknowledgments are due….I have throughout the Work been most careful to avoid whatever might prove offensive either politically or personally…..a task of no easy performance.[12]

The first edition of Kay’s Portraits was a great success; there were more than 1000 subscribers including the Queen.  A second edition was produced in 1842 and a third in 1877, this time published by A & C Black who had acquired the copper plates from Paton and had them destroyed after the publication.  A facsimile reproduction of the first edition was published in 2007 by Birlinn Ltd. with a new introduction by Allan Bell which gives a useful list of all the known repositories of Kay’s art work. How many engravings Kay produced is unknown.  A figure of 900 is frequently quoted but without supporting evidence.  In addition to the 340 reproduced in Kay’s Portraits, only a few dozen have been located elsewhere and the surviving total is probably less than half the quoted estimate. 

In published accounts of Kay’s work, his character sketches are variously described as etchings or engravings. These are two separate methods of achieving a similar end – the reproduction of an image on a metal plate from which multiple copies can be made. Engraving involves inscribing the plate with a sharp tool and etching achieves a similar effect using acid to eat into the metal, sometimes referred to as aquatinting. Kay himself refers to his portraits as engravings and his portrait of Walter Scott, shown above, is clearly an engraving. Paton who bought Kay’s plates, which were listed in the sale catalogue as engravings, refers to them as etchings in the title of his publication A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings. In this publication he includes short autobiographical account of Kay’s life. (Vol I p 1-3). In this he quotes Kay as saying that after the death of his patron (William Nisbet who died 1783) he attempted to etch in aquafortis (nitric acid) ie aquatinting, and having published some of his Prints executed in this way, he met with so much unexpected success, that he was able to drop his old profession as a barber in 1785. It is apparent from the above that Kay was familiar with techniques of engraving and etching and may have used both in his character sketches. Sometimes the two methods may be combined which may account for the use of the two terms in reference to is work.

It is of interest that Kay’s presumed associate, David Allan, is said to be the first artist to use the technique of etching in Edinburgh having learned the process from Paul Sandby who described the method and gave it the name aquatinta. Perhaps it was Allan who introduced Kay to this method.

Kay’s artistic talents extended far beyond his character sketches. This engraving entitled Dead Game shows a delightful sketch of a dog and cat and many show architectural features. He would have had no difficulty in contributing to the Painting.

[1] Grant J, Old and New Edinburgh I p191

[2] Chambers, R  loc sit

[3] Brown, I. G.(2012)  Chapter on The Individual Contribution of John Kay p 107-8 in The Edinburgh History of the Book Vol 2 

[4] Chambers, R. loc sit

[5] This catalogue together with a catalogue of Kay’s possessions, auctioned ten years after his death, are bound together in in NLS RyI.3.49

[6] Kay’s prints are frequently incorrectly referred to as etchings whereas they were prepared from engravings – a different technique.

[7] Kay’s Portraits Introduction p iv

[8] Robert Chambers 1802-1871 was a historian, prolific author and publisher.  His books Traditions of Edinburgh, Reekiana and Biological Dictionary of Eminent Scotsman have been much referred to and quoted in this text. 

[9] David Laing 1793-1878 was an eminent historian and antiquary.  He was librarian of the Signet Library, member of the Society of Antiquarians and secretary of the Bannatyne Club.  He appears later in the book as the organiser of a memorial stone for John Knox. He was also involved in efforts to restore the Mercat Cross in the High Street.

[10] William Smellie 1740-1795 was a successful printer, publisher and natural historian.  He was first editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[11] Paterson Autobiographical Reminiscences p 151

[12] Notice at the end of Kay’s Portraits vol 2