Hugh Ramsay was born in Glasgow on May 25th 1877. He was the fourth son of nine children. The family soon moved to Australia, and because of his father’s business acumen, soon prospered. The family home was built in Essendon and named Clydebank.
The Scottish Protestant values of hard work, thrift and sobriety were imbued in all the children, and religion played an important role in the family. Throughout his short life Ramsay returned to his family for affection and support, and many of his best paintings are of family members.
Ramsay attended a local grammar school and excelled, being made Dux of the school in 1891. Rather than following his father into commerce, or attending university, Ramsay studied art. This was an unusual decision, especially as the family fortunes were threatened by the 1890’s depression and the collapse of the banks.
In 1894, aged sixteen, Ramsay joined the National Gallery School.
This school was dominated by two teachers with very different approaches to art. Bernard Hall was strict and unapproachable and he believed in the time-tested academic methods; a student started by sketching plaster models before progressing to an analytical understanding of shape, colour and form.
Frederick McCubbin was friendly and more atune to what was happening in the Australian art scene. Some of his paintings are now seen as the major examples of Australian Impressionism, and so he reflected the new national pride and appreciation of the Australian landscape.
Ramsay also studied anatomy and this helped him later when painting portraits.
It is significant that Hall seems to have had much more influence than McCubbin on Ramsay’s later work. Hall showed Ramsay how the tonal range of painters such as Whistler and Manet developed from the seminal figure, Velasquez. This Spanish painter was to have the most profound effect on Ramsay’s approach to painting.
Ramsay won awards for his painting, and was expected to win the Travelling Scholarship; this would have paid for his travel to Paris.
When he left the Gallery School in 1897 Ramsay set up a studio in Flinders St Melbourne. He also shared a very basic dwelling in Eltham, then a more substantial house in the same suburb.
Taking students was one way to pay his way, and although the number of students was disappointing, he met Lischen Muller. She was fourteen.
Ramsay used her as a model for his painting Consolation, inspired by the Keats poem Hyperion. She later became his fiancée.
Ramsay again missed winning the Travelling Scholarship, and an acquaintance arranged for a raffle of some of Ramsay’s works.
Using this money Ramsay left Australia on September 14th 1900.