One of the joys of working in Edinburgh is that beneath the modern gloss and bustle, there are quite so many connections to be found between the city and the founders of the America State.
Edinburgh, now such a prissy establishment sort of a place, hides a hidden history of radicalism, sedition and downright revolution. In the eighteenth century it was an intellectual powerhouse of a place and its cramped tight streets made it a seething hotbed of modernist revisionist thought. From here came world renowned Philosophers, and the founders of whole schools of thought such as Geology and Economics. It also suffered a large group of radicals who had much to do with the ideas that led to the American and French revolutions.
A large number of those involved in the American War of Independence and after were educated at the University here. Many more however visited. Some are well remembered such as Benjamin Franklin’s lauded extended visit to his friend, the philosopher David Hume. Others seem to have drifted a little more under the radar. Such as Thomas Paine.
Tom Paine was an immense figure in the forming the voice, and writings for both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Many hold that without him and his writings such as Rights Of Man, and Common Sense the revolution might never have happened.
So why was he here? Well, he was a peripatetic character always on the move. Always on the run perhaps, he never appealed much to authorities! And he hoved up in the burgh in 1790 to meet others who were sympathetic to his cause and here he met with John Kay.
John Kay was a local print-seller who drew satirical portraits of the local unco guid, and coothy characters that were well known in the town. He was also a noted radical so it is no surprise then that he would have sought out a visitor such as Paine and drawn him. But what a drawing! Apart from the fact that it might be the only true portrait of Paine done from life, it is exception in its directness.
Look at it. There is a real power here. Yes, Kay can be a bit “naive” a little stiff perhaps, even wooden in his style but here he has played a blinder. There is directness here in Paine that simply is not shown in the more formal studio studies of say Romney in 1793 or Laurent Dabos in 1793. Those portraits were being done with posterity in mind, with an intention on elevating the condition of their founding philosopher. Those are portraits for the salon, the political office and the embassy.
With Kay’s portrait, Paine is looking directly at the artist with a glister in his eye. The picture burns with his intelligence and even more with his humour. Paine clearly likes his artist and the artist him. This is one half of a meeting of two men obviously getting along like a house on fire. Paine is being pictured in his natural environment. This is not a man given to the gilded dinner parties of the influential, or the politeness of the drawing room. This is a man who talks as much as he writes. One can just imagine the conversation, the friends, the jug of claret and glasses sitting on the table just out of shot.
It is exceptional and sadly so little known.
Copyright David Macadam 2015