He studied in London under Hans Hysing, and at the St. Martin's Lane Academy. He then worked for three years in Rome and Naples. Ramsay made an astonishing progress during his two years away, when he came into contact with Imperiali and the young Batoni in Rome and worked under Solimena in Naples.
Upon his return, Ramsay setled in Edinburgh, where his talent was recognized - his full-length portrait of the Duke of Argyll was later used on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes. Also his father was able to use his social connections to advance Ramsay's career.
Allan Ramsay - Portrait of Queen Charlotte 1761-62
Ramsay moves then to London where he was employed by the Duke of Bridgewater.
With a good classical education behind him, excellent manners and taste in dress, the young Ramsay became popular. Besides, the Act of Union (1707), which brought the great Scottish magnates to London and to position of influence, benefited his career significantly. One of the most influential Scotsmen in London Lord Bute, who was a nephew of Ramsay's earlier patrons the Dukes of Argyll, proved to be a loyal supporter to the artist and secured patronage for Ramsay which eventually blossomed on a scale unknown since Van Dyck.
Allan Ramsay - Richard Grenville, 2nd Earl Temple 1762
Ramsay executed Lord Bute's particularly fortunate full length portrat and many commissions followed. The artist was also largely employed in decoration, an industry which involved an army of assistants.
According to Dr. Alexander Cunningham, Edinburgh physician, even 'before he had the luck to become a favourite with the king, he was perfectly independent as to fortune, having, in one way or another, accumulated not less that forty thousand pounds, a sum which almost justified the jeremiads of Hogarth over the popularity of face-painting. What is perhaps more remarkable, however, is that he was not only highly in request as a portrait painter, but ws even preferred to Reynolds. It was the opinion of Walpole, for instance, that Ramsay excelled Reynolds as a painter of women. "Mr. Reynolds seldom succeeds in women; Mr. Ramsay is formed to paint them" (Letter to Dalrymple, 25 Feb.1758).
Allan Ramsay - Self Portrait
With the accession of George III his favour with the court increased, and in 1767 he succeeded John Shackleton as portrait painter to his majesty, an appointment with had the effect of turning his studio into a manufactory of presentments of royal and official personages, in which little but the head (and often not even that) was executed by himself. The king's inveterate habit of giving away elaborate full-lengths of himself and Queen Charlotte kept him constantly employed.
(Dictionary of national biography, Volume 47 By Sir Leslie Stephen, Sir Sidney Lee)
As soon as he was finacially secure, Ramsay bought an estate and acquired the status of gentleman. He married well, twice. His first wife, Anne Bayne, was the daughter of a professor of Scots law at Edinburgh, Alexander Bayne of Rires. She soon died, giving birth to their third child; none of their 3 children survived childhood.
Allan Ramsay - Portrait of Lady Susanna Cambell c1740
In 1752, he married his student Margaret Lindsay, they had three children together and long and happy marriage, although Margaret's father, Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, never forgave her for marrying an artist.(In his letter Ramsay's prospective son-in-law makes it clear that Amelia Ramsay's suitability has less to do with her father's position as court painter to George III, than her kinship with the noble Lindsays (on her mother's side) and the dowry of 4,000.)
By 1770, Rramsay gave up painting due to an accident (he was showing his household how to escape in case of fire, when he fell and dislocated his arm).
In 1782 his second wife died. Ramsay left for Italy where he lingered several years; he returned to England home sick and died in 1784.
A man of considerable culture, an excellent linguist and scholar, Ramsay was distinguished for his amenity, his knowledge of the world, and his social charm. 'You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance than in Ramsay's' (Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)).
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford c.1759