Edinburgh Bookshelf

Kay's Originals Vol. 1


ORIGINAL PORTRAITS, ETC. ETC. No. I. MR. JOHN KAY. CARICATURIST, ENGRAVER, AND MINIATURE PAINTER. DRAWN BY HIMSELF, 1786. THE following sketch of the life of John Eay was written by himself, with the view, it is believed, of being prefixed to a collection of his works which he had projected :- "JOHNK AY, the author of these Prints, was born in April 1742, in a small house a little south from Dalkeith, commonly called Gibraltar. His father, Mr, John Kay, was a mason in Dalkeith, as well as his two paternal uncles, James and Norman Kay. His mother, Helen Alexander, was heiress to many tenements in Edinburgh and Canongate, out of which she was tricked by the circumvention of some of her own relations. " She had still so much confidence in those relations, however, that upon the death of her husband in 1748, she boarded her only son John, then only six years of age, with one of them, who used him extremely ill, and not only neglected but beat and starved him. While he lived with these savages in Leith, he ran various risks of his life from accidents without doors, as well as from bad usage within ; and there is every reason to believe that they really wished his death, and took every method to accomplish it except downright murder. On one occasion he was blown into the sea from the Ferry-boat Stairs, and on another he fell into the water on stepping across the joists below the Wooden Pier, but recovered himself both times, by grasping the steps on the one occasion, and the joists on the other. But he ran a still greater risk of drowning upon a third occasion, when, happening to be seated on the side of a ship in the harbour, he was accidentally pushed overboard, and being taken up for dead, remained in that condition for some time, till one of the sailors, anxious to see him, in his hurry trampled upon his belly, which immediately excited a groan, B
Volume 8 Page 1
  Enlarge Enlarge  
a BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. and produced respiration and articulation. He might have died, however, that same evening, had not other people taken more care of him than his barbarous relations did. “ About this time he gave strong proofs of an uncommon genius for drawing, by sketching men, horses, cattle, houses, etc., with chalk, charcoal, or pieces of burnt wood, for want of pencils and crayons. But under the government of his cousins, no propensity of this kind was either attended to or encouraged. And, though he himself wished rather to be a mason, the profession of his father and uncles, yet, by some fatality or other, it happened that he was bound apprentice to one George Heriot, a barber in Dalkeith, about the age of thirteen or little more. ‘I With this honest man he learned his business, and served six years, during which time, although he did every kind of drudgery work, he was perfectly happy in comparison of the state of tyranny under which he had so long groaned at Leith. When his time was out he Came to Edinburgh, where he wrought seven years as a journeyman with different masters, after which he began to think of doing business for himself; but not having the freedom of the city, he was obliged to purchase it from the Society of Surgeon-Barbers, of which corporation he accordingly became a member the 19th December 1771, upon paying about 340 sterling. “ This business he carried on with great success for several years, being employed by a number of the principal nobility and gentry in and about Edinburgh. Among other genteel customers, he was employed by the late William Nisbet, Esq. of Dirleton, who not only employed him in town, but also took him various jaunts through the country with him in his machine ; and at last became so fond of him, that for several years before he died, particularly the two last (1783 and 1784), he had him almost constantly with him, by night and by day. ‘I The leisure time he had on these occasions, while he lodged at Mr. Nisbet’s house, afforded him an opportunity, which he took care not to neglect, of gratifying the natural propensity of his genius, by improving himself in drawing; and Mr. Nisbet having approved of his exertions, and encouraged him in the pursuit, he executed at this time a great number of miniature paintingesome of which are still in the possession of the family of Dirleton, and the greater part in his own. “It should have been mentioned earlier in the order of chronology, that our hero married, so early as the twentieth year of his age, Miss Lilly Steven, who bore him ten children, all of whom died young except his eldest son William, who was named after Mr. Nisbet, and who seems to inherit his father’s talent for drawing. Mrs. Kay died in March 1785, and after living upwards of two years a widower, our hero married his present wife, Miss Margaret Scott, with whom he now lives very happily. “Mr. Nisbet of Dirleton, previous to his death, sensible that, by occupying so much of Mr. Kay’s time, he could not but hurt his business, although he sent money regularly to Mrs. Ray, had often promised to make him amends by settling
Volume 8 Page 2
  Enlarge Enlarge