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A Highlander and his Books
Capital Caricatures

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA, Email:

Book cover is a self portrait by John Kay "sitting in a thoughtful posture in an antiquated chair"
among some of his favorite things.

Several years ago while visiting the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, I was going through two huge volumes entitled A Series of ORIGINAL PORTRAITS And CHARACTER ETCHINGS by John Kay which were published posthumously in 1837 and 1838 respectively. At the head of the list of subscribers is HER MOST GRACIOUS MAJESTY THE QUEEN followed by 15 pages of others who thought the two volumes were worthy of subscription. Thanks to the excellent library staff at USC, and Dr. Patrick Scott in particular, I have sought out many rare books and articles at the library, but I do not recall the thrill of seeing another Scottish book that excited me like these two books.

As fate dictates, sometime later I received notice that Birlinn Limited would be publishing the two volumes. My, how I wanted a set but their price was a wee expensive. However, as I read the material advertising the volumes, I found there was an offer to members of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (members are designated FSA Scot), thus making it a good buy. I have never regretted the purchase.

Sketch by John Kay of Captain Francis Grose for whom Robert Burns wrote his famous Tam O'Shanter.

Then out of the blue, I read an essay in FICKLE MAN by Sheila Szatkowski entitled The Paparazzo, The Publisher, and The Poet. It was about John Kay, a mixture of town barber, engraver, artist, caricaturist, and miniature painter. John Kay produced nearly a thousand characters but unfortunately only 400 have turned up. How could I not help falling in love with this wonderful man? He has become a favorite Edinburgh character of mine, thanks mostly to the work of Szatkowski in FICKLE MAN and CAPITAL CARICATURES. Many of the Edinburgh characters we have all come to know and appreciate over the years are in her book on Kay. Now we know what some of them look like.

After contacting Sheila, I ordered a copy of her book which proved to be a real treat. This marvelous book consists of one hundred of her favorite Kay characters. In addition, the biographical notes provided by James Paterson, an experienced journalist, and Hugh Paton, a respectable printer, show Kay’s humor, wit, satire and comical side. You may not wish to put as much money into the big two-volume set mentioned above, but you cannot go wrong buying her book. It is available on for a modest price. As I have said from time to time in this space, do yourself a favor and purchase one. You will be glad you did.

A Topsy-Turvy Affair sketch of marriage before and after. 
There is a different view if the sketch is rotated 180 degrees.

Before we go any farther, let’s consider a few details about John Kay. At age six he was farmed out to a relative on his mother’s family and he lived a very hard life, nearly drowning a time or two. Early in his life he “gave strong proofs of an uncommon genius for drawing, by sketching men, horses, cattle, houses, etc, with chalk, charcoal, or pieces of burnt wood, for want of pencils and crayons.” Through no choice of his own he became a barber apprentice around age 13. Six years later he moved up the road from Leith to Edinburgh and bounced around with different masters until he was able to secure a membership in the Society of Surgeon-Barbers in late 1771.

Alexander McCall Smith wrote the excellent Foreword for this book

A major turning point in his life came when Kay met William Nesbit of Dirleton who encouraged him to excel in his drawings. Kay was able to spend a lot of time with Nesbit which afforded him the opportunity to pursue his dream. Nesbit became the patron of Kay and upon the death of Nesbit, Kay received £20 annually for life. In 1785 Kay decided to leave barbering to others, and by 1795 he had given his full attention to drawing, engraving, etc. For nearly 50 years, few people of any reputation, famous or infamous, escaped his attention. Thus, he was able to establish a unique sets of drawings, the like of which no other city that I am aware of, can boast. Kay would display his productions in the windows of his print shop, attracting the attention of Edinburgh’s citizens. Some who had been caught by his pen even bought the drawings to keep from public eye. In his own way, Kay was perhaps one of the first paparazzo!

Ironically, there is not a character sketch of Robert Burns by Kay to be found, and I cannot help but wonder if Burns is one of the missing 600. You do the math. Being the talk of the town and being welcomed into the homes and clubs on his trips to Edinburgh, plus the fact that Kay was quick to capitalize on sketching visiting celebrities, Burns’s absence is otherwise hard to understand when so many of his acquaintances in Edinburgh are in the John Kay books. Even though there is no proof Kay sketched Burns while visiting Auld Reekie, Kay did sketch exceptional visitors and Burns would fit that description. One such celebrity Kay sketched was “the fashionable balloonist” Vincent Lunardi, he of the popular “Lunardi bonnets” and “Lunardi skirts” worn by locals. What a sight the people of Edinburgh must have experienced as this flying Italian ascended into the skies over Scotland before thrilled crowds of 80,000 to 100,000 in October and November of 1785. Even Burns was impressed with him and penned a line in To A Louse about him - “But Miss’s fine Lunardi, fye”. As to the missing sketches, they have to be the proverbial “pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.”

Lawyer and client, one of Kay's best known Topsy-Turvy prints. Make a copy and turn upside down to see the client's face.  "The last item on the legal invoice presented to the client was usually the tavern bill."

Upon his death in February 1826, the twice-married Kay was buried in the northwest corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard by the Flodden Wall. I look forward to visiting his grave on my next trip to Scotland early next year. His is the grave of a man we all owe a debt to, who by the way, had no gravestone for over 200 years. The name of John Kay will never die because his works will live on for centuries. People like Sheila Szatkowski will see to that! I want to personally thank Sheila for this remarkable book. It is good news indeed to learn that “a definitive book on John Kay is on the drawing board” as she continues to work diligently to bring attention to John Kay, the man described by his widow as one who “cared for no employment except that of etching likenesses! (FRS: 8.12.10)

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