John Kay
(1742 – 1826)

18-19th Century British Caricaturist




Captain Mingay
With a Porter Carrying George Cranstoun in His Creel
1784 / 1877
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 68 x 103 mm (2 3/4 x 4 1/8 in) 
Copper engraving

This print is about the little man in the basket, George (or Geordie) Cranstoun.  Cranstoun was a well known figure in Edinburgh, clever and entertaining, who would take jobs to sing and tell stories at gatherings.  Typically he would drink too much and would need assistance getting home.  Kay depicted the character as riding in a basket or creel on a porter’s back, with one Captain Mingay leading the way.



The Daft Highland Laird, John Dhu, or Dow, alias MacDonald,
       and Jamie Duff, an Idiot

1784 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 107 x 84 mm (4 1/8 x 3 1/4 in) 
Copper engraving

James Robertson, known as the Daft Highland Laird, talked through a figure on a stick.  He a tried his best to be sent back to prison where he had acquired his lunacy. John Dhu was the well-known and much beloved City Guard who was tough on the outside and gentle on the inside. Jamie Duff  had serious mental problems (an "idiot") and assumed the role of a mourner at every funeral in Edinburgh.  This is one of Kay’s first images; he loved eccentrics.


Three Legal Devotees
Andrew Nicol, Mary Walker and John Skene

1802 / 1842

Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 100 x 145 mm (4 x 5 3/4 in)   
Copper engraving

Mary Walker was Andrew Nicol’s neighbor and they shared a backyard fence.  Walker accumulated a midden or pile of rubbish that Nicol found abhorent.  He took her to court a number of times, quite unsuccessfully.  He in fact spent most of his time and money in court over the rubbish pile.  The pair is pictured by Kay with Nicol’s advotate, John Skene.  The plate below is Kay’s portrait of Nichol and his lawsuit documents.


Andrew Nicol
With a Plan of His Middenstead

1802 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 95 x 138 mm (3 3/4 x 5 3/8 in) 
Copper engraving

Andrew Nicol was the plaintiff in the scores of lawsuits surrounding the rubbish pile along his backyard fence belonging to one Mary Walker.  Kay found him a worthy subject of his own portrait, and presented him as crazed and obsessive, punching his finger to one of his legal documents designed to bring his neighbor into submission.   He eventually landed in the poorhouse because all his worth was consumed in his lawsuits.  Kay loved to draw stories from the day’s news, reminding us that fact is better than fiction.


Beetty Dick
Town Crier in Dalkeith    Born 1693  Died 1773
09 / 1838
Print: 215 x 267 mm (8 x 10 1/2 in)  Image: 82 x127 mm (3 1/4 x5 in) 
Copper engraving

The town crier in medieval times was the primary source of news.  In smaller towns this job was held by an elderly matron who gathered attention by clapping a wooden spoon on a metal pan.  Beetty Dick was the crier
 in Kay's home town of Dalkieth north of Edinburgh.  This engraving was made a full 36 years after Beetty's death, so Kay had to create her image from a very old but substantial memory. 
Kay portrays her with obvious fondness and respect.


John Dhu
1784 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 72 x 72 mm (2 7/8 x 2 7/8 in) 
Copper engraving

John Dhu (Shon Dow or John Doe), who appeard in three of Kay’s prints (all in this exhibit), was a member of the Edinburgh Town Guard.  Earlier credentials find him as a Member of the Royal Highlanders fighting in the Battle of Ticonderoga in the American Revolution in 1758.  Kay depicted Dhu as a hard and determined law officer, but original notes on this print reveal he also had a fair and generous spirit.


Isobel Taylor
Aged 105 widow of John Alice. 
She was born in the parish of Crieff County of Perth the 4th of March 1713,
and died in Edin'r the 23rd of April 1818.
1789 / 18
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 130 x 153 mm (4 3/8 x 6 in) 
Copper engraving

Also known as Widow Ellis, Isobel is said to have led an uninteresting life but in her old age displayed "an unusual degree of freshness and vigor."  Kay made this print from a painting by one Wm. Donaldson of Edinburgh.  It is an obvious celebration and honoring of her long life.


Dr. James Hamilton, Senior
1789 / 1842

Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 48 x 80 mm (2 x 3 1/4 in) 
Copper engraving

Hamilton was one of Edinburgh’s best-known physicians, and became part of Kay’s repertoire of walking, full-figure profile portraits.  Kay did scores of such walking figures, almost always of well-known local aristocrats.  The sameness of Kay’s presentation of them seems to imply a sameness in their societal role as representatives of cookie-cutter correctness.  Kay saw them as boring and tended to depict them that way. 


Alexander Hunter, Esq. of Polmood and Roger Hog, Esq. of Newliston
nd. c. 1785 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 103 x 140 mm (4 x 5 1/2
Copper engraving

Hunter was a merchant whose extreme wealth was garnered almost exclusively by taking advantage of people, including his own son.  Hogg was also wealthy, but gained his fortune by being parsimonius and miserly.  Kay depicted the cheating Hunter as bent over and needing a cane, and Hogg as fat and slovenly.  To show that both considered themselves quite noble, Kay appended a biblical quote
("I say we are fearfully and wonderfully made") that delightfully described their ironic self perception.


Byrne the Irish Giant
Mr. Watson, Mr. McGowan, Mr
. Fairholme and Geordie Cranstoun
1784 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 73 x 108 mm (2 7/8 x 4 3/8 in) 
Copper engraving

Byrne was a celebrated giant over 2.5 meters tall who visited Edinburgh.  Kay pictured him with several local gentlemen that included little Geordie Cranstoun. He rendered the strange meeting even stranger by exaggerating the difference in the size of the giant and the midget.  Reports place Byrne’s remains in a London museum yet today.



Mr. Thomas Blair
Late of the Stamp Office, Edinburgh

1792 / 1838
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 138 x 91 mm (2 x 3 5/8 in) 
Copper engraving

Blair was the Deputy Comptroller of the Edinburgh Stamp Office.  The 1838 notes on this print state that "in growth he was somewhat stunted,” that he was "as broad as he was long,” and that he utilized every means to make himself appear taller.  Kay, of course, found this perfect for his characterization of Blair and presented him the way he wanted others to see him.  Blair claimed to remember the moment of his birth.



Miss Burns
A Celebrated Beauty of Last Century
1789 / 18
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 130 x 153 mm (4 3/8 x 6 in) 
Copper engraving

Miss Burns (or Matthews) came to Edinburgh from Durham in 1789 at the age of 20.  Her youth, beauty and sophistication drew much attention, especially at the "Evening Promenade."  The "fame of her charms" created enough controversy as to be formally asked to leave town.  She didn't.  She died, however, in 1792 at age 23.
Edinbugh's own Robert Burns wrote a poem, eventually published, to accompany Kay's engraving:
"Cease ye prudes, your envious railing.
Lovely Burns has charms - confess;
True it is; she had one failing -
Had a woman ever less!"



Dr. Alexander Hamilton
Professor of Midwifery

1786 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 32 x 83 mm (2 1/8 x 3 1/2
Copper engraving

Hamilton was a Professor of Midwifery at the Univerity of Edinburgh.  Kay presented him in his typical walking-profile gesture, but added a pair of extravagantly-dressed ladies in the background. They don’t seem to relate to Hamilton and appear to be part of a doctor-client caricature.  Kay’s style of social satire often involved the mixing
of images in the mind of the viewer.



An Exchange of Heads
Hugo Arnot, Esq.,  Mr William MacPherson and Roger Hog, Esq.

1785 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 78 x 110 mm (3 x 4 3/8 in) 
Copper engraving

Kay presented three of Edinburgh’s most unsavory residents in this print.  He choose to create a caricature of the three bodies rather than disparage their characters.  The two facing men, Arnot and McPherson, are shown with the other’s head on their bodies, Arnot’s small head on McPherson’s stocky body, and vice versa.  The slovenly Roger Hogg completed the trio, and Kay displayed only his fat back. 



William Mason
Grand Secretary
787 / 1877
Print: 143 x 192 mm (5 5/8 x 7 5/8 in)  Image: 55 x 98 mm (2 3/16 x 4
Copper engraving

Masons' primary job as Secretary to the Grand Lodge was to entertain the Grand Master whenever he visited, "which duties he performed with great credit for many years."  He was known for one joke and a funny incident about spilling his ale.  Kay graced Mason with two sorts of caricature. One, he inscribed his vague title below his portrait rather than his name, implying that neither was remarkable. In the other Kay graphically depicted every aspect of  his image as being round: the frame itself is round, Mason's shoulders, face, eyes, cheeks, chin, dimple and neck are round, as is his hat, the curls of his wig and even the gap in his buttoned vest is round.  A capital caricature indeed!



Captain Hind
1790 / 1842
Print: 146 x 244 mm (5 3/4 x 9 1/4 in)  Image: 80 x 162 mm (3 1/8 x 6 3/8
Copper engraving

John Kay’s fascination with Captain Hind had to do with a story known to most Edinburghers: Hind was in love with a local "celebrated beauty” who detested her admirer.  Hind’s rejection only served to inflame his passion.  Kay depicted him half running, mouth open, with a oddly-angled hat lending strangeness to the otherwise perfectly presented gentleman..



Mr John Shiells

1791 / 1838
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 130 x 153 mm (4 3/8 x 6 in) 
Copper engraving

John Shiells was a well-known Edinburgh surgeon who, over the years, had grown so fat that it was difficult for him to walk.  He acquired a horse but was too big to mount it.  He hired a man to help him on and off his horse.  Kay’s satirical caricatures were often about such oddly human situations



Mr. Thomas Neil
Wright and Preceptor
In the Character of  "The Old Wife"
c. 1785 / 1838
Print: 190 x 260 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in)  Image: 53 x 75 mm (2 1/8 x 2 7/8
Copper engraving

This "son of song" was, for some 40 years, the choirmaster of Edinburgh's "Old Church."  In the church he did his work capably and well; in the tavern, however, he was "glorious."  His drinking song repertoire was endless and the crowds especially enjoyed his mimicry of local characters.  Kay depicted him in his role as the "old wife" - kerchief on his head, lips tight and long chin forward.  His song-making seldom earned enough; he sang for love and not profit, so his day job was a coffin maker. 



Colonel Monro
A Well Known Blue Gown Beggar

1804 / 1838

Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 68 x 95 mm (2 5/8 x 3 3/4 in) 
Copper engraving

The Blue Gowns were an order of paupers or beggars in 18th century Edinburgh who were allowed to beg for alms and receive other favors in return for praying for the Crown.  They were identified by their costume which included a blue gown and leather bag in which their government stipend was kept.  Of Colonel Monro it is said nothing is known other than he was a familiar figure in the streets, a perfect subject for the pen of Kay



James Robertson of Kincraigie
1784 / 1838
Print: 185 x 256 mm ( 7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 55 x 88 mm (2 3/8 x 3 1/2 in) 
Copper engraving

Robertson, also known as "The Daft Highland Laird,” possessed an eccentricity Kay addressed several times.  Robertson’s staff was topped with a carved head in the likeness of local Edinburghers, in this case John Duh. He enjoyed confronting people with and often speaking through this staff.  In this print he confronted a man whose name is not known, nor is the young lady walking in the background.  This is one of Kay’s first attempts at etching



Andrew Donaldson
Teacher of Greek and Hebrew
789 / 1877
Print: 1841 x 190 mm (5 1/2 x 7 1/2 in)  Image: 80 X 117 mm (3 1/4 x 4 5/8
Copper engraving

Donaldson was capable, intelligent, and educated, but he lacked patience for his profession of teaching Greek and Hebrew to lazy students.  He quit teaching and became a full-time eccentric.  He insisted it was a sin to shave his beard; he donned the long-robed attire of the ancients and walked with a tall staff.  He literally memorized the bible and repeated proper verses for most any occasion.  He insisted that he should not eat unless he worked so he ate only when he found work.  He was a perfect subject for Kay's pen.



The Woman Who Minded Her Own Affairs
1812 / 1877
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 48 x 120 mm (1 7/8 x 4 7/8 in) 
Copper engraving

It was unusual for John Kay’s subjects to be anonymous, as is the case with this portrait known only by her title, "The Woman Who Minded Her Own Affairs."  Perhaps he didn’t know who she was, and depicted only what he saw of her, namely that she appeared quietly gentle.  His title would suggest as much.  Hugh Patton suggests she resembled one Mrs. Gibb, a local tavern keeper, but Kay would certainly have known that.  She remains anonymous.



John Wright, Esq

1801 / 1877
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 93 x 130 mm (3 5/8 x 5 1/8
Copper engraving

Kay often portrayed Edinburghers in head-and-shoulder portraits.  Usually these were quite accurate representations.  With John Wright the temptation was too great not to do him in caricature.  Wright was an advocate whose speech was so slow and mushy-mouthed, with a disposition to match, that he seldom won arguements in court.  Kay’s representation of Wright as an 18th century Homer Simpson is quite delightful.



Mr. Francis Anderson, W. S., Mr. James Hunter, and his son, Mr. George Hunter
1802 / 1877
Print: 150 x 185 mm (5 7/8 x 7 1/4 in)  Image: 75 x 130 mm (3 x 5 1/8
Copper engraving

It is told that this scene occurred in Parliament Square in Edinburgh, and was visible from Kay's shop window.  Mr. Anderson is in the act of inviting his friend Mr. Hunter to dinner.  Hunter is profoundly deaf, and Anderson must approach him quite closely to make sure he is heard.  Hunter's son George stands in the background.  Kay reported that son George was quite upset after the print appeared because he was not as tall as his father. The scenario, quite mundane to the casual observer, becomes precisely the sort of event Kay delighted in immortalizing.



James Mackcoull alias Captain Moffat
1821 / 1838
Print: 190 x 260 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in)  Image: 88 x 128 mm (3 1/2 x 5 1/16
Copper engraving

This quiet-looking gentleman is either extremely shy or seriously afraid - his visual demeanor could suggest either.  The fact is that Kay depicts him "at the bar of the high court of the judiciary,"  facing the sentence of hanging for his crimes.  Kay pictures him literally holding his breath.  After a full and illustrious life of crime, he claims engendered by his mother, Mackcoull went crazy and died in prison before he could be executed. 



obert Craig, Esq. of Riccarton

815 / 1838
Print: 185 x 256 mm (7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in)  Image: 115 x 171 mm (4  1/2 x 6 3/4
Copper engraving

From youth to extreme old age this sweet fellow was an inveterate walker, going many miles all over Edinburgh before breakfast.  As he grew older he would walk up and down Prince St. where he lived, and when he couldn't walk any more he sat on his porch in the fresh air.  He is shown in his complete "walking gear" with special boots, his stick and broad brimmed hat. Looking on is his loyal servant who went with him everywhere. In real life Craig was an advocate, judge, and legal scholar, wealthy and eccentric.  Once on a walk he met a beggar without shoes.  Craig removed his own, gave them to the man, and continued on his way.



John Kay
1742 - 1826

John Kay was a true outsider artist, one of the earliest of the naive tradition.  Originally an Edinburgh barber, Kay worked full-time engraving miniature "portraits" of fellow Edinburghers. His work today is seen as caricature, but was not always meant to be; he was entirely untrained and the naive character of his art often simply betrays the extent of his skills.  During an otherwise ordinary lifetime, Kay produced over 900 engravings, all unknown today except for a few more than 300.  He produced no books of his work during his lifetime, nor were there any exhibits of his prints.  Many of his pieces were purchased by their subjects for the sole purpose of destroying them.  On several occasions Kay was attacked by someone whose portrait he created.  He was by no means acknowledged during his lifetime. nor was he ever considered an important artist, although his work is garnering some attention as the art world begins to explore the unique works of the untrained "outsider" artist.  At the same time, very few artists can boast of having over 300 original works in the collections of the British Museum. 

After Kay died in 1826 his work was "discovered" by one Hugh Patton who gathered his plates, assembled the stories about the portraits from Kay's notes, his wife, and several acquaintances, and began publishing them.  In 1837-38 two volumes of engravings were published.  In 1842 another edition was released, and finally in 1877 a revised edition was produced from plates acquired from the estate.  Since that time no other works have been published utilizing Kay's copper plates.  All prints in existence today are pulled from Kay's original plates, including those in this collection.  All plates were lost after 1877.

These original prints are in the archives / collection of  Imagi Gallery.

The premiere exhibition of this collection was held at the
 Paul Kondas Museum of Naive Art in Viljandi, Estonia
from March through September, 2011.
 It was paired with an exhibit of an equal number of engravings by William Hogarth
and entitled "18-19th Century British Caricaturists."

The exhibit then traveled to Tartu, Estonia in January 2012 and was held at the Tartu Linnamuuseum
 through the end of February

Imagi Gallery

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