Review: Jacobite exhibition explores legacy of the Stuarts

The Jacobite exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland explains the enduring fascination with the Stuart dynasty. Picture: Neil Hanna/JP Resell
The Jacobite exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland explains the enduring fascination with the Stuart dynasty. Picture: Neil Hanna/JP Resell
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Portraits, armour, silverware and song help illustrate the history of the Jacobites in this extensive exhibition, writes Duncan Macmillan

Allan Ramsay was the leading portrait painter of the mid-eighteenth century. Generally working in London, whether by accident or design, he happened to be in Edinburgh in the late summer of 1745 when, after landing in the west and raising a Highland army, Prince Charles Edward Stuart set up court at Holyrood. On hand and evidently willing, Ramsay was instructed to paint the prince.

A 1694 portrait by Pierre Mignard of King James VII and his family. The monarch was deposed from the thrones of Scotland and England in 1688. Picture: Royal Collection Trust

A 1694 portrait by Pierre Mignard of King James VII and his family. The monarch was deposed from the thrones of Scotland and England in 1688. Picture: Royal Collection Trust

Painting the Prince’s portrait was a dangerous thing to do, but the painter had met him a few years earlier in Rome, had been impressed and was evidently now willing to take the risk.

The picture is small, which is perhaps why it was overlooked for so long, but is now a star exhibit in Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites at the National Museum. Painted from the life by an artist who was at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, it is a key witness to a critical moment in the story of the Jacobite cause and indeed Scotland’s central part in it. In the portrait, the Prince seems alert and thoughtful. He is not exactly bonnie, but his bright and level gaze hints at the charisma that he undoubtedly possessed. Indeed it was his only real asset in a scheme which by any usual measure of prudence should never have got off the ground. Though he adopted the costume of his Highland army, as Ramsay painted him the Prince shows no trace of that association. Wearing the Order of the Garter, not the Thistle, he is an English prince.

Clearly when the picture was painted, he had decided to march south to try to seize power in England and not remain first to consolidate his position in Scotland as many of those around him would have wished. (Dissatisfaction with the Act of Union was a significant factor in the long history of the Jacobite cause in Scotland. It all seems very topical.) Engraved by Robert Strange, unlike Ramsay an acknowledged Jacobite, this image of the Prince was intended as propaganda to accompany that move. The Stuarts well understood the importance of image and symbol and much of this extensive exhibition consists of pictures and objects made for such purposes, or indeed, like some of the beautiful Jacobite wine glasses, made nostalgically after the event remembering a lost cause.

Among the most impressive and significant objects is a pair of silver-hilted broadswords and a silver mounted Highland targe. Together with a tartan costume, these were gifts from James Drummond, Duke of Perth, five years before the Prince set out for Scotland.

A dress targe presented to Prince Charles Edward Stuart by James, 3rd Duke of Perth

A dress targe presented to Prince Charles Edward Stuart by James, 3rd Duke of Perth

The targe is particularly striking. Its central boss is the head of Medusa, a reference to Perseus who used his shield to slay the monstrous gorgon and then rescued Andromeda from another monster, just as Charles, it was hoped, would slay the usurper and rescue his country. This pointed gift clearly reveals that the strategy of turning once more to the loyalty and warrior traditions of the clans was in place well before 1745. The Highlanders had of course already played a key part in successive attempts – in 1689, 1708, 1715 and 1719 – to restore a Stuart to the throne, initially of the three kingdoms and then after the Union of the United Kingdom and Ireland. (A rather hopeful proclamation by Queen Anne commands her subjects in “England, Wales and the town of Berwick-on-Tweed” henceforward to celebrate the Treaty of Union on May 1st.) The exhibition tells the story of these various tumultuous events with clarity and dramatic impact through portraits, objects, displays and also recorded words, both spoken and sung.

Very striking, for example, in the turbulent context of Scottish religious history are sacramental items made for Charles I’s Scottish coronation and a set of silver Communion vessels made for his openly Catholic son, James, when as Duke of York he held court at Holyrood, sent to Scotland by his brother Charles II to keep him out of trouble. James was also an experienced soldier, however, and nearby is a suit of armour, the last ever made for a British monarch. Painted in armour by Peter Lely, James was strikingly good looking as indeed was his son. On his father’s death, aged 13 he inherited his claim to the throne, becoming known thereafter as the Young Pretender.

Later, however, in a portrait by Trevisani, though still handsome, his long and rather solemn face suggests the piety that persuaded him to see his younger son, Prince Henry Benedict, become a cardinal (though not yet a priest.) It may also have increasingly alienated him from his eldest son, however, who, like Henry IV of France, evidently showed himself willing to change his religion to secure a throne. Although he had risked so much for him, Charles never returned to Rome till after the death of his father.

Not everything here is elegant propaganda however. After James VII and II was deposed in favour of his half-sister Mary and then defeated at the Battle of the Boyne by her husband William of Orange, William’s determination to suffer no further opposition is illustrated by the brutal Massacre of Glencoe. Infamously carrying out what were ultimately his orders, the Campbells turned and murdered the Macdonalds who at the time were their hosts. The official order for this shocking event is displayed here. Even more gruesome is the block on which Simon Fraser Lord Lovat was executed for his albeit rather ambiguous part in the Forty Five. The proclamation made in 1746 banning Highland dress was not so bloody, but was a crippling blow to the integrity of Highland society.

An 18th century bible printed in Gaelic is among the exhibits

An 18th century bible printed in Gaelic is among the exhibits

The Stuarts were at once the unhappiest and the most enduring British dynasty. When Cardinal Prince Henry Benedict, the last of the line, died in 1806 they had been reigning monarchs, deposed monarchs, or would-be monarchs for almost five centuries. After 1688, with little political power of their own however, they were pawns in the politics of others.

They were supported first by Louis XIV and when he abandoned them, by the Pope, but in 1766, on the death of James III and VIII even the Pope refused to recognise Charles as king and the Stuart cause ended. If it had not been for the generosity of his cousin, George III, Henry Benedict, who outlived his brother, might have died in penury, though not before he had sponsored one of the richest and most gorgeous objects in the exhibition, a golden chalice studded with diamonds. It was George, too, who paid for the Stuart tomb designed by Canova in St Peter’s. Perhaps as he signed the cheque, he also breathed a sigh of relief to see the end at last of his troublesome cousins.

The exhibition tells the whole of this long sad story. Truly comprehensive, it is essential viewing for anyone who cares about Scotland’s history. n

Until 12 November