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John Kay was a caricaturist who made caricatures of all public figures in Scotland during the 18th century

Tijana Radeska
John Kay
John Kay

John Kay was born in Scotland in 1742, near Dalkeith, Midlothian, where his father was a mason. Kay was thirteen when he became an apprentice to a barber, with whom he stayed for seven years.

It was 1771 when he moved to Edinburgh, where he enrolled as a member in the Society of Surgeon-Barbers and opened his own barber shop. When he had no customers and no work to do, Kay was drawing portrait sketches and caricatures of well-known characters in the city.

Self-portrait of John Kay, 1786


Portrait of Adam Smith by John Kay, 1790


Lord Balmuto, a Scottish judge, by John Kay, 1799

He was highly original in his drawings even though he never had an artistic education. He published his first caricature of Laird Robertson in 1784, and got the interest of William Nisbet of Dirleton, who settled an annuity upon him. So the next year, Kay was able to give up his work as a barber to pursue a career in drawing. He closed his barber shop and opened a small print shop in Parliament Close where he sold his etchings.

Kay drew almost every notable Scottish figure from the 18th century. It has been calculated that he etched almost nine hundred plates from 1784 to 1822. Although there were many who enjoyed his drawings, there were also some Scotsmen who bought the portraits of themselves only to destroy them, because of their satirical nature. From 1811 to 1816, Kay contributed many of his portraits to the annual exhibitions of the Edinburgh Associated Artists.

John Grieve, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, cartoon by John Kay 1783. Photo credit


Henry Lord Kames, Scottish advocate, judge, philosopher, writer and agricultural improver; Hugo Arnot, Scottish advocate, writer, and campaigner; and James Lord Monboddo, Scottish judge, a scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher and deist. Etching by John Kay, 1784.


Lord Monboddo, a caricature by John Kay


Fellows inspecting the installation of a new sewer system in Edinburgh. From Kay’s Original Portraits by John Kay
1842. Photo credit


Kay’s portrait of Alexander Wood – a surgeon and the first person in Edinburgh to use an umbrella. Kay’s Portraits. 1842

The very few facts known about Kay’s life are written in his short biographical sketch that he wrote and intended to publish in 1792, although he didn’t manage to complete this project.

His famous shop on the Royal Mile burned down in the Great Edinburgh Fire in 1824 and two years later, in 1826, Kay died at the age of 84.

In this caricature of Wood with his cane, Kay has attempted to capture his kindly demeanor. Kay’s Portraits. 1842


Kay’s portrait of John Brown, Scottish physician and the creator of the Brunonian system of medicine. Photo credit



Memorial stone of John Kay in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Photo credit

Read another story from us: Before the development of photography, the Portrait miniature was highly popular in introducing people to each other over distances

He was buried at the north end of Greyfriars Kirkyard. His short biography and collection of 340 sketches were published in 1838, more than ten years after his death.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News