Periwigs & Painted Ladies

  • Paintings, sculpture, miniature
    30 min
    7 works
  • Throughout history men and women have turned to artifice in the pursuit of beauty, reaching for wigs and cosmetics to enhance their appearance. Do you think these sitters are ready for their close up?

Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor

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  • 1-2
  • 4-6
Portrait Second floor
  • 1

    Lady Agnes Douglas, Countess of Argyll, attributed to Adrian Vanson, 1599.

    With her pale complexion and auburn hair, Lady Agnes was a famous beauty in Elizabethan times. Women employed cosmetic trickery in pursuit of beauty, plucking their eyebrows and hairlines to create a high forehead, and whitening their faces with highly toxic ‘paint’ made from mercury or ceruse, which contained lead. Cosmetic recipe books suggested safer alternatives but these do not sound appealing – they included a face wash of ‘pigeon water’, the distilled liquid resulting from slow-cooking the plucked bird, and ingredients such as urine and snake fat.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 1

  • 2

    James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, 1649 - 1685. Natural son of Charles II by Lucy Walter. Abraham Blooteling; after Sir Peter Lely, after 1673.

    The full-bottomed periwig like this one worn by the Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, was fashionable from the early 1660s and was an expensive status symbol. The finest periwigs were made from human hair, and the trend was widely adopted by the time Lely made his portrait of Monmouth. However, they were wildly impractical - the famous diarist Samuel Pepys reported the occasion when he set his on fire by candelabra: “Here I also, standing by a candle that was brought for sealing of a letter, do set my periwig a-fire, which made such an odd noise, nobody could tell what it was till they saw the flame, my back being to the candle…” Monday 28 September 1668.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 1

  • 3

    Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska, by Francesco Trevisani, 1719

    Princess Clementina’s heavily powdered hair is at odds with more reserved British fashions, reflecting the Continental influences at the exiled Jacobite court. White make-up continued to be popular to hide the ravages of smallpox and cosmetics still included improbable-sounding ingredients, such as monkey faeces. Contemporary advice manuals recommended natural remedies for preserving the complexion, but with suggestions such as laying slices of raw meat upon the face, perhaps it’s no wonder the use of paint prevailed.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 4

  • 4

    William Aikman (self-portrait), 1711

    The unnatural height of Aikman’s toupee shows the wig’s evolution from the full-bottomed style as demonstrated by the periwig. As hair was thickened with a gum that often turned rancid, unpleasant smells were masked with perfume or, from the 1690s onwards, scented powders. But it seems wigs were no less hazardous to health than cosmetics; three hundred times the toxic level of arsenic was found in a surviving sample of George III’s hair.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 5

  • 5

    Adam Smith by James Tassie, 1787

    Smith wears the ‘bag-wig’; so-called because the hair was gathered into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck. By the time Tassie produced this portrait most men had already begun to wear their natural hair, but this ubiquitous style remained correct court wear into the nineteenth century. Powdering the hair continued until a tax was imposed on wig powder in 1795; at the cost of a guinea, those who continued the fashion earned the nickname ‘guinea-pigs’.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 5

  • 6

    Henry Home, Lord Kames by David Martin, 1794

    Still worn today, wigs are typically a symbol of authority and status – in this case, fitting for a judge, legal historian and philosopher such as Lord Kames. First worn in the courtroom during the Restoration period, they gradually became obsolete for all but bishops, coachmen and the legal profession. In the late eighteenth century the full-bottomed wig was replaced for civil trails with this more informal style of frizzed bob-wig.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / Second floor / Gallery 5

Scottish National Portrait Gallery / First floor

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Portrait First floor
  • 7

    Elizabeth Courtenay, Lady Charles Somerset by Richard Cosway, painted before 1788

    Miniatures were often kept as personal mementos and sitters would have wanted to look their best. Lady Elizabeth’s loose powdered curls are at the forefront of fashion for this period. A pale complexion remained consistently fashionable, but the supremacy of French taste ensured the British also developed a penchant for rouge. Apparently no more squeamish about their cosmetics than their forbears, it was not unknown for ladies to apply false eyebrows of mouse skin, while hair was thickened with hog’s grease.

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    Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery / First floor / The library - Display cabinet 1

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