Lucinda Lax, Senior Curator, Eighteenth-century Portraiture, takes a look at one of the Galleries’ most important recent acquisitions and describes the complex programme of research that was undertaken to establish its authorship and dating.
An intriguing visual puzzle
In 2016, the National Galleries of Scotland announced a remarkable acquisition: a portrait by Allan Ramsay, Scotland’s greatest eighteenth-century painter, of the Jacobite hero Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Adding to its significance, it could be linked to a document commissioning Ramsay to paint a portrait at the height of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, when Charles, having successfully seized Edinburgh and established his court at Holyroodhouse, was poised to march southwards to take London. As the only known image of Charles from this pivotal moment in his life, the painting was recognised as one of the most important surviving Jacobite artefacts and took pride of place in the National Galleries’ collection as one its most vivid and evocative artworks. Steeped in the romance and valour that characterises this fabled episode in Scottish history, it continues to captivate and intrigue audiences five years on.
But before the decision to acquire the portrait in 2016 could be made, the National Galleries had to be assured that the picture really was what it seemed to be. Although it had formed a part of the collection at Gosford House, the East Lothian seat of the Earls of Wemyss and March, for many years, relatively little was known about its origins.
It also belonged to a well-known group of portraits, all believed to be based on a print by the Scottish engraver, Robert Strange, traditionally said to have been made during the 1745 Rising. The print showed Charles in precisely the same pose and wearing the same clothes. It became the source of many subsequent portraits of him produced in Scotland, some almost identical to the engraving and others with the clothes changed to tartan. How could we know that the painting was not just another example of a copy based on the engraving or even a version in oil of the portrait by Strange himself?
In addition, the portrait exhibited some unusual features that seemed difficult to account for. The first was its modest size. Measuring little over 26 x 21 centimetres – barely the size of a piece of A4 paper – its small scale made it unlike any of Ramsay’s other works, which typically consist of life-scale, half-length to full-length portraits. This piece, by comparison, is little bigger than a miniature. The only work it seemed to resemble is Ramsay’s small-scale and intimate portrait of his dead son, painted in 1741. But this is an entirely different kind of painting and even this is larger than the likeness of Charles.
Moreover, the image did not seem to present the kind of the likeness one might expect to see in a portrait of a triumphant warrior prince. Whilst Charles is certainly shown at his most glamourous and self-confident, wearing sumptuous court attire and fixing the spectator directly and authoritatively, no reference is made to his recent military achievements. In addition, there are no explicit indicators of Scottishness within the picture. This is rather surprising for a portrait by a Scottish artist of a prince who had just seized the Scottish capital. We know also that Charles had entered Edinburgh clad in the dress of a Highland warrior so it would seem natural to have wanted to allude to this in some way, perhaps by including some element of tartan in his clothing. Even more remarkably, he is not shown wearing the badge of the Order of the Thistle, the premier Scottish order of knighthood. Instead, it is the sash and star of the Order of the Garter – the premier English order of Chivalry – that adorns his breast.
At first sight, then, the painting seemed to raise many puzzling questions: why should a portrait presumably intended to glorify a triumphant warrior be on such a diminutive scale? Why is he shown as a civilian rather than as a triumphant general? Could it really have been painted by Ramsay in 1745? And what was the relationship between the portrait and Strange’s print, to which it bears such a close resemblance?
Our task in early 2016 was to try to find answers to as many of these questions as possible. It was a process that involved much painstaking research and that took us on a journey of discovery not only about the picture itself but also about how and why it was created. Here, we recount the story behind this research and the fascinating insights it revealed about the painting’s broader meaning and significance.
Our starting point was two crucial pieces of documentary evidence, both already known to researchers thanks to Bendor Grosvenor, who had first announced the painting’s authorship by Ramsay and its dating to 1745 in a BBC Culture Show special in 2014.
Perhaps the most important was the remarkable letter that survives in the Cumberland Papers, now held in the Royal Library at Windsor.
Looking closely at this, we can see that it was written at Holyroodhouse by John Stuart, probably the prominent Jacobite leader, Colonel John ‘Roy’ Stuart (1700-1752), who fought as part of Charles’s army in 1745. It is also clearly dated 26 October 1745 and its purpose is unmistakable. It is addressed to ‘Mr Allan Ramsay, painter’ and contains what sounds very much like a royal command from the prince to the artist: ‘Sir, you’re desired to come to the palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’s picture so I expect you’ll wait no further call’1. If the portrait was indeed the work of Ramsay, it certainly seemed that there was a strong case to be made that this was the very letter that commissioned it – and that it must therefore have been painted in the heady days of the 1745 Rising.
One objection to this was that it was believed that Ramsay, who had definitely been in Edinburgh in the summer of 1745, had left by the time that the letter was written. This was because the eighteenth-century art-world commentator and journal writer, George Vertue, had noted that Ramsay returned to London in ‘Xber’ of that year. Ramsay’s biographer, Alastair Smart, interpreted ‘Xber’ to mean ‘October,’ thinking that the X, being the Latin number 10, meant that Vertue was referring to the ‘tenth month’2. In fact, however, comparison with Vertue’s other uses of this abbreviation, along with those of other writers of the period, show that ‘X’ was short for the Latin word decem, and that he was consequently recording Ramsay’s return to London in December 1745. It therefore seems that he had remained in Edinburgh for some time after the prince had left the city.
The second piece of documentary evidence – an early catalogue of paintings in the Wemyss collection – provided additional support for the attribution to Ramsay.
Although this is undated, the style of the handwriting suggests that it was probably compiled in the early nineteenth century – taking the attribution to Ramsay back to within a few decades of his death in 1784. The painting features as one of the first entries and is listed as ‘Ramsey [sic.] – Portrait of Prince Chas. Stewart’3.
Although it felt as though two critical pieces of the puzzle were now in place and we had fundamental evidence linking the portrait to Ramsay as well as to Charles’s residency in Edinburgh, this was not enough in itself to confirm the attribution or the dating to 1745. We really had to be sure that the portrait was stylistically right for Ramsay. This meant undertaking a detailed visual assessment of the painting with the aim of identifying certain characteristic traits or features – such as how the paint is applied and the way individual details are handled – that could then be compared to similar elements in other known portraits by the artist.
One feature which is revealing in this respect is the rendering of Charles’s hair in the portrait. The creamy curls of paint that form sharp highlights are especially characteristic of Ramsay’s approach in the 1740s and 1750s. Another noticeable feature is the distinct blush of the sitter’s skin. In some cases this directly reflects a specific – indeed seemingly unique – technique that Ramsay adopted in some of his portraits, which involved underpainting the area of the face in tones of red or pink before applying natural flesh tints to model the features. Though he did not use this technique in all his paintings, a warm tone to the skin became characteristic of Ramsay’s work of this period4. In our portrait the face does appear to have a light-coloured underlayer to the face. This is visible around the shadow of the nostril when the painting is examined under high magnification and would have been applied over the grey-coloured priming.
Stylistic analysis also revealed other consistencies between the portrait and documented works by Ramsay, such as his portrait of his first wife Anne Bayne, completed after his return from a two-year visit to Italy in 1739. For example, there are clear similarities in the way that the eyes are painted. Although the brush strokes are more prominent in the portrait of Charles because of its small scale, in both cases, they are not only strikingly similar in form but also employ closely related techniques for the portrayal of details such as the sitters’ irises and eyelids, with their similar patterns of carefully applied highlights and lowlights and dabs of contrasting colour.
At this stage, then, the stylistic evidence appeared to support the attribution to Ramsay. However, this still did not in itself prove that the portrait was the result of a direct encounter with the prince. This was the next major question we had to address.
Considering the portrait’s vivid and lively character it seemed likely that it had been produced from a life sitting. However, given Ramsay’s considerable skill as an artist, we could not rule out the possibility that it may be a later copy based on another artist’s work. More in the way of evidence was needed to confirm its status in this respect.
Life sitting or copy?
To do this we compared the portrait to other well-documented representations of Charles, examples of which were already in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection. Firstly, we looked at Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne’s portrait sculpture of the prince, executed in Paris in 1746.
This is an especially useful work to compare with the portrait, as the bust became widely known through casts (such as the one in the National Galleries’ collection) and was recognised by contemporaries as an especially vivid and accurate likeness. Comparison of the two works supported our idea that the portrait was likely to have been produced from a life sitting. Not only was this apparent from the strong resemblance in Charles’s appearance in both works – highlighting the overall accuracy of his representation in the portrait – but also from a further idiosyncratic feature – the distinctive shape of his lower lip, which is clearly visible in both pieces, although rather less strongly in the sculpture than in the oil portrait.
This is not an aspect of his appearance that is emphasised in other official court portraits. In fact, most portraitists appear to have sought to disguise it to make his features conform as closely as possible to contemporary ideals of masculine beauty, which tended to give young men ‘cupid’s bow’ lips, as we see from the oil portrait copied from Maurice Quentin De La Tour’s now lost pastel of Charles from 1746.
However, Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s remarkably frank portrait of about 1782, where Charles is shown towards the end of his life, when he had become a disappointed and depressive alcoholic, also shows this feature very clearly.
Here, again, he is depicted with the same characteristic lower lip. This small but important detail appeared to provide a further valuable clue in our quest to better understand the portrait’s status. Indeed, the clarity with which it is depicted suggests that the portrait is unlikely to have been based on any other known image of the prince. Once again, this supported the idea that it is an original work produced from a sitting with Charles himself.
We now had a growing body of evidence that, taken together, seemed to confirm the claim that the portrait was indeed painted from life as the result of a direct commission to Ramsay.
A parallel in print
If this was the case, it suggested that the painting could not simply be a copy of the engraving by Robert Strange. So, the next thing we needed to do was to compare the painting and the engraving very carefully to clarify their relationship to each other.
At its heart is the depiction of Charles that is so very similar to the oil portrait. Not only are his pose and clothing the same but other details, such as the way he wears his hair and the inclusion of the ermine-lined cloak that tumbles from his shoulder, are also nearly identical.
To begin with, we needed to be able to date the print confidently. Traditionally, it was believed to belong to the period when Charles was resident in Edinburgh from late September to October 1745. However, recent scholarship has challenged this idea, suggesting that it is more likely to post-date the Rising by some four or more years, having been produced after Strange settled in Paris in mid-17495. This is because the circumstances of the Rising would have made it difficult for Strange to execute a copperplate engraving of such compositional complexity in Edinburgh. Additional research was therefore required to see if we could disentangle these differing interpretations and establish the print’s true date of production.
The breakthrough came when we found that Strange’s print could be connected on stylistic grounds to a distinctive group of line engravings produced in Edinburgh in 1744-5. These included works by Strange himself as well as his former tutor – and much esteemed fellow engraver – Richard Cooper (1701-64).
Strikingly, they could be seen to employ motifs that were almost interchangeable, with each consistently setting their subjects within similarly elaborate architectural frames and including closely related symbolic and decorative details. Further research revealed the explanation for this. Strange and Cooper, far from relying on their own inventive powers to create these images, directly based their compositions on a readily available and highly popular series of engraved portraits showing ‘Illustrious Persons of Great Britain’. These had similarly elaborate frames, mostly designed by the Huguenot artist Hubert-François Gravelot, with the actual engraving done by the Dutch engraver, Jacobus Houbraken.
The Edinburgh prints, in other words, were effectively pastiches or copies of these earlier engravings. Strange’s print of Charles continues this same practice, drawing together elements from two key sources: the pedestal and cartouche (decorative frame) derive from Houbraken’s print of Cardinal Wolsey whilst the helmet, olive branch and sword are copied directly from the ornament surrounding – more than a little ironically – his image of Oliver Cromwell.
Crucially for us, these findings not only supported the traditional 1745 dating of Strange’s print, but also suggested how it was possible for Strange to produce an engraving of this complexity and sophistication in the midst of mounting pressures at the height of the crisis.
This was further reinforced by the discovery of the original source of the claim that Strange produced the print in 1745. This is a letter published in the July 1792 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, written in response to the obituary of Strange published there the previous month. Luckily for us, it provided a detailed outline of his activities in 1745:
In the year 1745 [Strange] was in a very respectable situation for a young artist at Edinburgh, and was soon engaged as engraver to the young pretender, Prince Charles… Mr Strange gained great reputation by engraving a print of the young Pretender, which was then esteemed a master-piece of the art, and is now thought and spoke of respectably by good judges. It is a half-length in an oval frame, on a stone pedestal, on which is engraved, Everso missus succurrere seclo. … [T]his print added so much to his [Strange’s] reputation and fame, that he had not only his levees, at his lodgings in Stewart’s Close, attended by the officers, courtiers, and ladies, of the Prince’s army and court, but even by many friends of the Government, of the grave and important kind, who make a point of encouraging merit on all occasions6.
So now we also had reliable documentary evidence – and from almost within Strange’s lifetime – to suggest that he had produced the print at Charles’s command in 1745. This opened the way for the final stage of our research.
Comparing the portrait with the print
To better understand the relationship between the portrait and Strange’s print it was necessary to set the two images side by side and compare them carefully. Whilst, at first glance, their details appeared to be very similar, on further inspection, it soon became clear that the two images are not by any means identical. While the oil portrait has the liveliness of a work painted from life, Strange’s engraving, by contrast, appears much more conventional and almost formulaic. This became even more apparent when we considered the approach taken to various details – such as Charles’s nose and eyes.
Left: Allan Ramsay Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 - 1788. Eldest Son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart 1745
Right: Sir Robert Strange Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 - 1788. Eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart 1745
Although individual features, such as the nose, are rendered quite accurately, when taken as a whole, they somehow appear less convincing and not so well put together.
The same pattern was evident in one of Strange’s other engravings from this time. His portrait of Archibald Pitcairn was based on a painting by Sir John Baptist Medina. Again, if we compare the print with the original, we find a similar pattern.
Left: Sir John Baptiste de Medina, Dr Archibald Pitcairn (detail), about 1701, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Right: Sir Robert Strange (after Sir John Baptist de Medina), Dr Archibald Pitcairn (detail), about 1745.
Individual features, such as the nose, the shape of the brow and hairline, and the outline of the face, are quite accurately copied. But somehow, they do not fit together in the way that they do in the original, meaning that the overall impression is rather different. For all his skill, then, Strange was still some way from being able to accurately reproduce a likeness. This all tended to suggest that Strange’s print of Charles was produced after the painting and was based directly on it. And this also made sense within the context of eighteenth-century print practice: engravings like Strange’s were typically based on pre-existing portraits. It was rather more unusual, by contrast, for engravings to be made from life and then used as models for paintings, and when it did happen the paintings are not in most cases of particularly high quality.
So, the evidence so far included: the strongly Ramsay-like style of the painting; good reasons to think that the painting was based on a life sitting; good reasons to think that it was the model for Strange’s print; and increasingly strong evidence that Strange’s print itself dated from 1745. With no one document to look to as decisive proof of the portrait’s status, it was inevitable that some degree of uncertainty would remain about the exact circumstances of its production. However, with the information that we now had available to us, we could begin to draw a set of credible conclusions about its likely origins. On balance, then, it seemed that we could be reasonably confident that the painting was indeed by Ramsay; that it was painted in 1745 at the express request of a member of the prince’s inner circle; and that it formed the basis for the engraving by Strange.
Putting the last pieces of the puzzle in place
Now that it was possible to date both the painting and the print to 1745 and we had a convincing explanation for how they were related, we were increasingly confident that they formed integral components of a single greater project. The reasons why this kind of project might have come about became clearer when we turned our attention once more to Charles’s circumstances in 1745.
Just as Charles was establishing his court at Holyroodhouse, the Hanoverians were beginning to assemble an army to retake Scotland. Charles had to decide whether to focus on securing his position north of the border or making a bold move – to march on London before the government had time to organise an army that could match his Highland forces. After much hesitation, and against the advice of his Highland followers, he decided on the latter strategy. It is at this moment in late October that Ramsay was summoned to Holyrood to paint the prince’s portrait. The commissioning of this work and the execution of the print, in other words, seem to have happened in response to Charles’s plans to seize London.
This made sense too within the context of the print’s rich symbolic content, with its emphasis on military achievement, as well as its bold Latin motto, visible on the base of the architectural frame that contains Charles’s portrait.
The motto reads ‘Everso missus succurrere seclo’ and means ‘sent to restore the ruins of the age’. It is a paraphrase of a celebrated passage from the Georgics of the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Its prominent use in Strange’s print was confirmation that he meant to explicitly reference a Stuart Restoration – the same motto features on Charles II’s official coronation medal from 1660 and is also referenced on a later medal of about 1730-40 showing Charles and his brother Henry as prospective heirs to the throne.
In the context of the 1745 Rising, it pointed to the print having been produced in anticipation of the seizure of London, in the belief that the second Restoration was imminent. At this point, Charles would have needed a suitable celebratory image of himself to distribute to his followers and publicise his transformed circumstances. Instead of being a mere copy of Ramsay’s portrait, then, Strange’s print, it now seemed, was the very reason why Ramsay’s painting was produced. With this in mind, it finally became possible to explain the portrait’s more puzzling features.
Firstly, its small scale. Clearly, an image on such a reduced format could be completed far more quickly than a full-scale painting. With pressures mounting at the height of the crisis, this was an important consideration, and would have enabled the picture to be sent to Strange for engraving as soon as possible. Even more significantly, because engravings are generally small-scale works, it was usual to produce reduced scale versions of full-size paintings if they were to be copied by the engraver. These were often drawings, but ideally they were paintings that recorded fully the balance of light, shade and colour in the original. Indeed, the English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds seems to have employed a copyist, John Powell, specifically for the purpose of providing reduced replicas of his finest paintings for the engraver to work from. By producing the portrait on this scale, Ramsay would have made the process of transferring the image into engraved form a great deal easier, once again saving precious time.
Next, its lack of visible references to tartan and the absence of the Order of the Thistle. With what we now knew about the circumstances in which the portrait was produced, we could infer that the portrait was not primarily aimed at a Scottish audience. Rather, the relative prominence of the Garter Star – the premier English order of Chivalry – pointed to its being targeted at English viewers, with Charles specifically represented as an English prince. His known conduct at Holyrood supported this too, as he apparently alternated Scottish and English dress for different occasions, thereby stressing that he was both a Scottish and an English prince, and that these identities were distinct but complementary7.
Over the course of several months, our research had revealed many fascinating insights about Ramsay’s portrait. Not only had we found strong evidence supporting its dating and authorship, but we had a new understanding of the role of art in the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Notwithstanding its modest scale and apparent lack of reference to the prince’s military successes, Ramsay’s portrait and the print that followed it were absolutely central to Charles’s ambitions in 1745 to regain the British thrones for his family. Both were carefully calculated elements of a propaganda project intended to promote Charles as a fitting ruler in the wake of his anticipated seizure of the English capital. The subsequent failure of his campaign deprived this endeavour of its immediate political purpose.
Whilst there are still aspects of the portrait’s history that continue to elude us, we have a strong foundation on which to build our future research. It is difficult to predict what the next chapter in the story may reveal but, with our continued commitment to deepening our knowledge of the painting, it is hoped that further work will bring us closer to gaining a full understanding of its origins and early provenance. In the meantime, however, we are fortunate to have Ramsay’s iconic portrait in the collection today.
1 Royal Archives, Cumberland Papers, RA CP/MAIN/ 6/269, John Roy Stuart to Allan Ramsay, Holyroodhouse, 26 October 1745, OS.
2 Alastair Smart, Allan Ramsay: Painter, Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 1992, p. 290, n. 89.
3 Gosford House, manuscript, 'Catalogue of Pictures at Wemyss House', undated, but probably early nineteenth century. We are most grateful to the Earl of Wemyss and March for giving us permission to consult this document, and to Hilary Wilkie, the archivist at Gosford House, for her invaluable help and support.
4 Rica Jones, ‘Painting a Face All Red at the First Sitting: Ramsay’s Technique for Portraits, 1725-60’, in Mungo Campbell (ed.), Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment, exh. cat., New York and London: 2013, pp. 111-15, 126.
5 The dating of Robert Strange’s print was tentatively called into question by Donald Nicholas in The Portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1973, p. 24. Nicholas’s suggestions have been taken up and developed more forcefully by Robin Nicholson in Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Making of a Myth: A Study in Portraiture, 1720-1892, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 2002, pp. 70-71.
6 ‘N.L.L.’, letter to the editor dated 6 August 1792, The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 62, part 2, August 1792, pp. 703-4.
7 Jacqueline Riding, Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion, London, 2016, pp. 178-79.