• may 2009
PG 2233

Jeremiah Davison

PG 2233

1740

David Taylor, Senior Curator This Portrait of the Month is selected by David Taylor, Senior Curator

This painting embodies five key themes which will be central to how portraits are seen in the re-opened Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Power, History, Identity, Representation and Memory.

Morton, his wife Agatha Halyburton, and their five children, appear like a snapshot of a family contentedly going about their everyday life, but in reality the highly-contrived composition, including the fashionable clothes and the opulent setting, shows us an idealised representation of a family. 

The earl leans on a large book, signifying his intellectual interests and reminding us of his role in Scottish history, and he wears the sash and star of the Order of the Thistle, indicating his power and status. The countess, shown at the centre of the family, holds a baby. 

The children are identified in relation to their imagined future lives; the sons play with bows and arrows and the daughters hold dolls and baskets of flowers.  Two of the children died before they reached adulthood and so the portrait serves to recall the memory of the family in happier times.

Jeremiah Davison painted this grand yet intimate portrait of James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, and his family, in 1740. The portrait was commissioned by the Earl, who was President of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, one of many such institutions created during the Scottish Enlightenment, and later President of the Royal Society in London.