Writers pen imagined biographies for portraits

Author Alexander McCall Smith is one of a host of writers who have created brief biographies to go with a group of portraits of people whose real identities have been lost.

McCall Smith, whose work 44 Scotland Street is serialised in The Scotsman, has imagined an alternative life for the subject of his chosen portrait as a body double for Mary Queen of Scots.

The author, whose series of books about the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency inspired a television series, joined novelists including Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, Joanna Trollope, Sir Terry Pratchett and Tracy Chevalier in contributing stories to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in central London.

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The 14 portraits were all originally thought to represent famous figures, including Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, but over the years those identities have been disproved or disputed and the pictures withdrawn.

Fellowes has written the biography of a woman whose husband was executed during the reign of Henry VIII, while Sir Terry has imagined the life of an explorer who returned from their travels to present Queen Elizabeth I with a skunk.

Joanna Trollope tells a story about a marriage proposal told in the form of a letter from the sitter’s intended bride.

The aim of the short narratives is to build on what can be seen in each portrait, providing the viewer with a new and entertaining way of looking at the intriguing images. The exhibition, called Imagined Lives: Portraits Of Unknown People, was originally displayed last year at Montacute House in Somerset.

Over the last 450 years, the identities of the sitters featured in the portraits have been either lost or mistaken, adding a layer of mystery to who the real person was.

The exhibition opens on 3 December and runs until next June.