Arabella Stuart was the daughter of Lord Darnley’s younger brother, Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, and the only legitimate cousin of James VI and I. As a descendant of James II of Scotland, and the great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII, she was also an heir to both the Scottish and English thrones.
On the surface this picture appears to be a standard, formal Jacobean portrait, but its messages and symbols refer to the sitter’s fascinating life. Arabella was brought up by her maternal grandmother, the Countess of Shrewsbury, the famous ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Her grandmother had kept her in semi-captivity, although she occasionally took her to Elizabeth I’s court, in the hope that the English queen might name her as her heir. Both Elizabeth and James VI considered various marriage proposals for Arabella, but as she was so close to both thrones and neither monarch wanted to encourage any political or religious reactions, negotiations were never finalised.
When the portrait was painted Arabella was fourth in the line of succession, after the king’s three children. The artist, Robert Peake, was painter to Henry, Prince of Wales, and perhaps Arabella was trying to show allegiance to her Stuart cousins by having her portrait painted by this particular artist. However, in 1610 Arabella secretly married William Seymour, Lord Beauchamp. The couple were subsequently imprisoned, as they had not asked the king’s permission to marry, and more importantly, because Beauchamp was also an heir to the English throne. James was fearful of any revolt against his rule, and sent Arabella to the Tower of London, where she eventually starved herself to death. The dog in the portrait symbolises faithfulness, and the watch that Arabella holds indicates she is aware of the passing of time and the inevitability of death.
The portrait will be on display when the Scottish National Portrait Gallery reopens later this year