Allan Ramsay's 'Bonnie Prince' acquired by SNPG

March 30 2016

Image of Allan Ramsay's 'Bonnie Prince' acquired by SNPG

Picture: SNPG

I'm delighted to report that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has acquired Allan Ramsay's portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Painted in Edinburgh in 1745, it is the only known portrait of Charles painted from life in Britain. It was acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, and has settled tax worth over £1.12m for the Earl of Wemyss.

On the SNPG website, 18th Century curator Lucinda Lax has written a blog entry about the picture, which you can read here.

The SNPG press release says:

A hugely significant portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie by the greatest Scottish portrait painter of the eighteenth century has been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery thanks to the AIL (Acceptance in Lieu of Tax) Scheme. 

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the Jacobite hero who sought to re-capture the British throne for the House of Stuart during the ill-fated Rising of 1745. He landed in Scotland on the 23rd of July, and marched to Edinburgh, defeating a government army at the Battle of Prestonpans. Charles then travelled south as far as Derbyshire, before returning to Scotland; his army was eventually crushed at the Battle of Culloden on the 16th of April 1746. The Jacobite cause was lost and he fled to exile. 

This portrait is thought to have been created at Holyrood in Edinburgh during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s short time in the city at the height of the Rising, by the most accomplished Scottish portrait painter of the period, Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Ramsay was born in Edinburgh, the son of a poet of the same name, and studied in London, Rome and Naples, before returning to Scotland in 1738. He worked for the grandest patrons both north and south of the border, creating a reputation for displaying great sensitivity to the characters of his sitters and masterly renderings of their clothes and poses in his paintings. 

His portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie is an accomplished early work, created when the sitter was 25 and the artist 32. Charles is depicted in half-length format, turning to confront the viewer directly. He wears a powdered wig, has a velvet robe fringed with ermine, and the blue riband and star of the Order of the Garter. The portrait was used as a prototype for painted and engraved versions, which were employed to promote the Jacobite cause. 

Then there's a paragraph about how the picture came to light:

Since the eighteenth century the painting has formed part of a collection outside Edinburgh; it has come from the Wemyss Heirlooms Trust and was last exhibited in the city in 1946. Recently attention was drawn to its status by a BBC 2 Culture Show Special, presented by Dr. Bendor Grosvenor (22 February 2014). The painting will be displayed in Gallery 4 of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as a centrepiece to the Gallery’s outstanding collection of Jacobite art which is one of the great strengths of the collection.

'...attention was drawn to its status' actually means 'discovered by', but never mind. It was good of them to mention me this time.

I'm going to go and see the picture tomorrow. Stand by for a Bonnie Prince Charlie selfie...

I'm ashamed to say that I never got around to publishing an article on the painting. So in case anyone wants to know more about it, either scroll to the bottom of the page for the note in the green box, or click 'Read on' below if you are coming to this page from the main site.

Update - by a happy coincidence, the picture appears on the front cover of a new book on the 1745 rebellion out this week. It's by Jacqueline Riding, and can be ordered here

Update II - just worked out that Charles and I are second cousins nine times removed. How about that?

Update III - the picture has even earnt its own White Glove Shot (on the front page of The Scotsman, though this time a pair of blue gloves has crept in, to form the colours of the saltire. Of course, I entirely approve.

Update IV - by happy coincidence I'll be giving a talk about the picture in Edinburgh next Monday. You need to be a 'Friend' of the Scottish National Gallery to come along, and there's only a handful of seats left. Apparently nearly 200 people are coming! Details here

Update V - here's the selfie, with Ishbel and Gabriella, both of whom are only in my life because of Ramsay's portrait. The God of art history moves in mysterious ways.

Update VI - thanks for all your kind emails on this.

Update VII - Neil Jeffares, the king of all things pastel, has some more information about the copies of La Tour's lost pastel of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Gosford portrait of Charles Edward Stuart by Ramsay is the only known portrait of Charles to be painted in Britain. It shows the Prince at perhaps the most critical moment of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. Until recently, the picture’s attribution and status were uncertain, not least because the iconography of Charles had become somewhat muddled: a portrait of Charles’ brother Henry, painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour in Paris in 1747, had been mis-identified and used as the standard image of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ on everything from book covers to biscuit tins. If the Gosford portrait was remarked upon in any documents it was as a copy after a 1740s engraving by Robert Strange. Furthermore, a misunderstanding of both the primary sources and Ramsay’s political instincts had led scholars to believe that Ramsay would never have painted Charles in any case. 

Now, however, the acquisition of the Gosford portrait for the nation allows, for the first time, the public to see the undoubted face of Charles at this vital moment in British history. Although the picture’s significance has been slow to emerge since its discovery was highlighted by me on BBC2 in early 2014, I believe it has the potential to become one of the most important in Scotland’s public collections. (For example, I gather the picture will soon appear on the front cover of a new biography of Charles).

Portraiture was always an important element in the Jacobite cause: the Stuarts understood the power of visual imagery in keeping their cause alive in the hearts and minds of their supporters. An apparently unpublished letter in the Cumberland papers, [1] addressed to ‘Allan Ramsay, Painter’, shows that even at one of the most intense periods of the ’45 Charles was aware of the need to have an up-to-date likeness ready for circulation, doubtless in the form of an engraving. 

Charles had taken Edinburgh without a fight on 17th September, and a few days later on 21st September had defeated a government army at the Battle of Prestonpans. His thoughts thus turned to England, and on 30th October his advisers voted to move south. But it seems Charles wanted to take with him not only an army, but a painting.

He therefore summoned the best artist in town, Allan Ramsay, who had been in Edinburgh since September. The letter from John Stuart (most likely the John Stuart or Stewart who was Charles’ valet, and no relation) was an urgent summons to Ramsay to see Charles at Holyrood:

“Sir, you are desired to come to the Palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’ picture. So I expect you’ll wait no further call. 

I am, your most humble servant, John Stuart, 

Holyrood House 26th of October 1745.”

Ramsay was always known to have been in Edinburgh at some point during the 1745 rebellion. But how long he stayed and for what purpose was a matter of debate. Horace Walpole, writing in 1775, averred that, notwithstanding his later professions of loyalty to the Hanoverians, Ramsay was in fact a Jacobite:

“Ramsay the King’s Painter, who had been a Jacobite and who had set out to join the rebels, though he arrived too late…” [2]

The art historian George Vertue, writing in the 1740s, instead suggests that:

“Mr Allan Ramsay painter went lately to Scotland just about the breaking out of the Highlanders rebellion - and when they came to Edenboro and intended to batter the Castle they found a little house on the side of the Castle Hill which did belong to Ramsay. on that the begunt to place a battery - but at the Castle soon observing their intention they fired upon it. & soon demolish it - Ramsay is returned to London […] Xbr” [3]

The house mentioned is the ‘Goose-pie Hoose’, lived in by Ramsay’s father, the poet Allan Ramsay senior (and so-called because it resembled a goose pie). We shall probably never know the extent to which, if at all, Ramsay had intended to support politically Charles’ cause. But his inclinations were far from those he later professed as a fervent Hanoverian, and loyal german-speaking court painter to King George III. In fact, Ramsay had been presented to Charles and the Jacobite court in Rome in 1737. He had also joined a Jacobite masonic lodge there. Probably, like so many Scots at the time, he was prepared to hedge his bets - and of course was happy to take portrait commissions from whomever would pay. Surviving portraits painted by Ramsay in Edinburgh during the ’45 show both government and rebel sitters (the latter including Lord and Lady Ogilvy [Private Collection].)

We can be more certain, however, that Ramsay was in Edinburgh for long enough to both receive Charles’ summons, and to act on it. George Vertue’s remark that Ramsay was back in London in ‘Xbr’ has previously been interpreted by the leading Ramsay scholar Alastair Smart as meaning October; the ‘X’ referring to the roman numeral ten for the tenth month.[4] However, a more lengthy analysis of the manner in which Vertue wrote his dates reveals that ‘Xbr’ in fact means ‘December’, the ‘X’ denoting the Latin word for ten, ‘decem’, hence ‘decem-br’.

Nonetheless, Ramsay cannot have had much time to complete the commission, for Charles’ army entered England on 8th November. The hurried circumstances perhaps explain the picture’s small size, which is unusual for Ramsay. But the size of the canvas and Charles’ presentation within it also provide further clues as to the picture’s intended purpose. Here, Charles is wearing only the sash and star of the order of the Garter, the pre-eminent English royal order of chivalry, and not the Scottish equivalent, the Thistle. Normally, in accordance with a decree issued by his father James III, Charles would have been depicted wearing both. Nor is Charles wearing any tartan, which, we are told, he wore in Scotland during the ’45. In other words, Charles is consciously presenting himself as English, perhaps to assuage his intended new subjects that he was not leading a Scottish invasion, despite the presence of thousands of Highlanders in his army. 

The small canvas, 12 x 10 inches, was perhaps also intended to increase the picture’s portability. Among Charles’ invading army was the talented engraver and committed Jacobite, Robert Strange. There is no firm evidence that allows us to date Strange’s two portrait prints of Charles (one a mezzotint and the other an engraving made in Paris soon after the rebellion). It is unlikely that he would have had the time or the means to engrave Ramsay’s portrait whilst in England, but it seems logical to me at least that that was the portrait’s intended purpose. 

It was probably through the link with Strange that the portrait came to enter the collection of the Earls of Wemyss. After spending some years in exile, Strange returned to Scotland, where on March 3rd 1751 a purchase is recorded in the cash books at Gosford for a payment to ‘Robert Strange ingraver' [sic] of £27 10s 6d. (for items unspecified). It is also worth noting that the Wemyss/Charteris family were longstanding patrons of Ramsay after 1745, and there are still a number of portraits by Ramsay at Gosford. There are also a number of entries in the Gosford cash books for payments to Richard Cooper, Strange’s master in Edinburgh for six years. An undated inventory of the pictures at Gosford, probably compiled in the early 19th Century, lists a portrait of Charles by ‘Ramsey [sic]’ of the same dimensions. It seems to have been at Gosford ever since.

Technically, the picture fits well with Ramsay’s other portraits from the mid-1740s, most notably with the ground layer (somewhat rough, with little granules showing through on the surface), and the use of pure red pigment in areas of detail. Stylistically, the picture is in my view unmistakably by Ramsay (and I’m glad to say that Dr Duncan Thomson, a former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, agreed the moment he saw the painting). Aside from a small, well-repaired tear, the picture is in excellent condition.


[1] The letter was helpfully transcribed sometime after the War by the Hon. Clare Stuart Wortley in her typescript survey of references to Jacobite portraits in the Royal Archives. This typescript is now in the Heinz Archive.

[2] Alastair Smart, ‘Allan Ramsay, Painter Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment’, Yale 1992, p.290.

[3] ‘Vertue Notebooks III’, in The Walpole Society, Volume XXII, p.128.

[4] Smart, 1992 p.290.

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