The artist and his model

David Roberts and Granddaughter

Thomas Faed

John Ballantyne

(25 April 1815 - 12 May 1897)

Portrait painter, was born in Kelso, Roxburghshire, one of ten children of Alexander (Sandy) Thomson Ballantyne, newspaper editor and manager, and his wife, (Anne) Randall Scott Grant. His parents were both Scottish; his father is primarily remembered for having copied for press some of Sir Walter Scott's early Waverley novels. John Ballantyne was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and received his artistic training at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh under William Allan and Thomas Duncan. He then travelled to Paris, Rome, and London to complete his student education. After returning to Edinburgh in 1839, he established himself as a portraitist, though he also painted historical genre subjects and still lifes. He regularly exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy (1831–83) and the Royal Academy (1835–83) and was elected an associate member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1841. He became a full member in 1860.

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Gustave Courbet Studio 1855

John Phillip 1858

John Phillip 1864

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George Harvey William Holman-Hunt William Powell Frith William Powell Frith Sir Francis Grant Sir Edwin Landseer

From the 1840s until the early 1860s Ballantyne played a significant role in Edinburgh's art world. He was a founder member and president of the Smashers, a sketching club established in 1848 by the city's younger artists. By 1845 Robert Scott Lauder, new head of the Trustees' Academy, had appointed Ballantyne as preceptor of life classes, where he taught draughtsmanship until he moved to London in 1863. As Lauder's chief assistant he assisted with the successful restoration of the falling reputation of the academy, teaching some of the most significant artists of the next generation, including William McTaggart, William Quiller Orchardson, and John Pettie. Some of his theories about art were expressed in his published 1856 pamphlet, What is Pre-Raphaelitism?, in which he linked the artistic principles and working practices of the movement to his own techniques.

Despite Ballantyne's active participation in Edinburgh's art world, he was by the 1860s in serious financial difficulty. While he had been in some demand in the 1850s as a portraitist, he had fallen out of vogue by the next decade. His career was not aided by his personality, for the frail, thin, bearded man was very ill at ease promoting himself. His financial pressures mounted, for he had a family to support -- he had married his second cousin, Christina (Teenie) Hogarth, about 1845, and they had had three children, Randal, Dot, and Edith. From this point until his death his brother Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825–1894), the highly successful writer of books for boys, contributed considerable sums in support of John and his family.

Attempting to seek more sympathetic patronage, Ballantyne and his family moved to London in 1863. Here he took in pupils to generate income and revived friendships with the many former Edinburgh colleagues who had already moved there. These artists re-established their sketching group, renaming it the Auld Lang Syne Club. Most importantly, Ballantyne and his brother Robert formulated a plan to enable him to establish his reputation and make money by painting portraits of famous London artists at work in their respective studios. At least seventeen of this series were completed, including those of William Powell Frith, Sir Francis Grant, William Holman Hunt, Sir Edwin Landseer, John Millais, and David Roberts. Landseer proved an especially troublesome subject, as he belatedly decided that he would not give permission for the painting of him completing the Trafalgar Square lions for the Nelson memorial to be exhibited in 1865, or to be reproduced and sold as chromolithographs because he was not yet ready to unveil these sculptures to the public. Although Ballantyne's paintings received a good press when exhibited, they apparently made little money. They are nevertheless his most important and most frequently exhibited works today. Highly significant as the first visual records of Victorian artists portrayed at work in their studios, they provide the only [or] finest records of what these large and often impressive rooms actually looked like, and they eloquently capture a sense of how each artist worked. While his other rather mediocre works are virtually unknown today, the artist series is very widely reproduced and admired. Some of the finest examples are in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

This project proved to be Ballantyne's final major effort. By the late 1860s his eyesight began to fail, and his productivity dropped to a handful of works annually. In 1869, he took the position of curator at the Royal Academy of Arts but was forced to resign due to further ill health. He then retired to Seend, near Melksham in Wiltshire, where by the mid-1880s he had ceased painting altogether. The impoverished artist lived on a small pension and aid from his brother until his death at Seend. He was survived by his wife.

View painter's art: John Ballantyne (1815–1897) [new window view]

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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