John Kay lived from April 1742 to 21 February 1826. He was a well known Edinburgh caricaturist and engraver. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Kay was born the son of a mason, near Dalkeith. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to George Heriot, a barber in Dalkeith. At the age of 19 he moved to Edinburgh to work as a barber and in 1771 he became a member of the Society of Surgeon-Barbers, which allowed him to set up in business for himself.
When not working as a barber, Kay was teaching himself to draw. He soon gained a degree of fame, and some notoriety, for his drawings and caricatures of notable Edinburgh residents. An early and enthusiastic supporter was William Nisbet of Dirleton, who gave him a annual allowance to help support him as an artist. In 1785 Kay's drawings were proving sufficiently successful to allow him to close his barber's shop. Instead he opened a printing shop in Edinburgh's Parliament Square where he produced and sold his works.
Between 1785 and 1822 Kay is said to have etched nearly nine hundred plates with portraits of prominent Scots. Not everyone appreciated his work. Sometimes his etchings, and the plates, were purchased by those portrayed with the intention of destroying them. He was also the subject of an unsuccessful prosecution because of his work, and a more successful street attack. More positively, Kay exhibited portraits at a number of exhibitions in Edinburgh from 1811, and his work became increasingly appreciate by a wider audience, if not always by those portrayed.
In 1792, Kay began a project intended to publish some of his drawings in book form, accompanied by brief biographies of those portrayed. This did not come to fruition, but in 1838, 340 of his portraits were collected by Hugh Paton and published in two volumes under the title: A series of original portraits and caricature etchings by the late John Kay, with biographical sketches and illustrative anecdotes. This proved highly popular throughout the 1800s, with the third edition in 1877 having additional plates and being expanded to four volumes. John Kay died in Edinburgh on 21 February 1826.