Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906) was born at Glasgow, Scotland, 6th son of John Ramsay, die-sinker & engraver, & his wife Margaret, née Thomson. In 1878, the family migrated to Melbourne. The Ramsays raised their 9 children piously at the substantial family home, Clydebank, Essendon. Hugh attended Essendon Grammar School. Gifted in both art & music, he was organist & choirmaster at the Congregational Church, Ascot Vale.
In 1894, he entered the National Gallery schools under Bernard Hall & Frederick McCubbin. Hall's teaching steeped Ramsay in the tonal tradition of Velasquez & stimulated his interest in the portraiture of Whistler & Manet. In 1897, he briefly attended classes with E. Phillips Fox & T. St G. Tucker at Charterisville, Heidelberg. Ramsay was a diligent student with a natural facility; his prize-winning was impressive, but he failed to gain the traveling scholarship in 1896 & 1899. Tall, slim & dark, Ramsay was remembered as modest & sensitive with a keen wit & a critical eye. He was close to his family &, of his large output from ten years of active work, they are often his subjects.
Determined to study in Europe, he sailed in September 1900, meeting on board George & Amy Lambert. In Paris, he shared James MacDonald's studio, a dilapidated building at Montparnasse which housed other artists including Ambrose Patterson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, & Frederick Freiseke. The Lamberts lived nearby. Both Ramsay & Lambert studied at the Académie Colarossi. Ramsay's visits to the Louvre to study Velasquez & the Old Masters improved his work. He reportedly painted from dawn till late at night & his influence on Patterson & Lambert became evident.
In April 1902, Ramsay won international acclaim when four of five paintings submitted to the New Salon were accepted & grouped together, an honour normally extended only to members of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. Ramsay seemed on the brink of success but within weeks of his arrival his doctor diagnosed tuberculosis, caused by the overwork & poor living conditions during 2 winters in Paris. An immediate return to Australia was prescribed.
Melba returned to Australia soon after Ramsay. She held an exhibition of his works at her Toorak house, Myoora, in December 1902, & commissioned him to paint her father & niece. In Australia, Ramsay was appointed to the judging panel for the gallery school's annual student exhibition & to the Victorian Artists' Society's selection committee.
Despite medical orders to rest, Ramsay continued to work, painting with a new vigour & breadth of style derived from his recent admiration for Sargent, producing large-scale canvases exhibited at the V.A.S. in 1903 & 1904. In 1904, he was forced to end his 5-year engagement to Lischen Muller & to rest in the country at Barnawatha. He died at Clydebank in March 1906, at the age of 28.
Much of the biography from the Australian Dictionary of Biography essay by Patricia Fullerton.