John Kay 1742-1826

Engraver and miniature painter

John Kay was born in April 1742, at Gibraltar near Dalkeith, son of John Kay, mason, and Helen Alexander. He was apprenticed to George Heriot, barber of Dalkeith, and purchased the freedom of the Society of Surgeon-Barbers of Edinburgh 19 September 1771. William Nisbet of Dirleton took him into his household, and there he learnt to draw and paint in miniature, in which he was encouraged by the family.

After his patron’s death, Kay published some etchings, and these were so successful that he gave up his old profession in 1785 and supported himself entirely by his etching and by miniatures. He married a Miss Lilly Steven, 6 March 1765, by whom he had his son William who did some etchings. She died in March 1785. He married again in 1787, Margaret Scott, who survived him and died in November 1835. John Kay died 21 February 1826, his son William predeceased him.

He had meant to publish his etchings during his lifetime, and prepared some short memoirs for the publication, including a brief autobiography. After his death the plates were acquired and published by Hugh Paton, a carver and gilder, with biographical notes by James Paterson. The parts began to appear in 1837. A Prospectus for the part edition of ‘The Works of the Edinburgh Caricaturist the late John Kay’ is in the appendix to the Edinburgh Directory for 1838. The text was revised for the 1842 edition. By then the plates were showing signs of wear, and most in that edition were offset onto lithographic stones and printed that way. A subsequent edition published by A. & C. Black in 1877, has the plates reentered by the graver.

Edin Dir; Pigot 1825; Bush.2; Kay; DNB; Dalkeith Advertiser 24 September 1896; James Paterson. Autobiographical reminiscences. Glasgow, 1841 Includes: ‘Kay’s Edinburgh portraits - how they were got up in 1832.’ Johnston

Antique prints - Portraits by John Kay