'The true face of Lord Darnley'

August 16 2016

Image of 'The true face of Lord Darnley'

Picture: Heraldscotland.com

I've always been slightly suspicious of facial recreations of historical figures from their skulls. A recent case saw a recreation Richard III's head from his newly discovered skull. But I couldn't help wondering how much of the 'likeness' derived from early portraits of the king, especially for things like eye and hair colour, which of course one cannot derive from skulls. The recreation wasn't done 'blind'. Some even claimed that the results 'proved' that the 16th Century portraits of Richard were accurate - even though they're all posthumous, and we have no evidence of a life portrait ever having been made. 

However, a new recreation has examined two skulls that claimed to be that of Lord Darnley, husband to Mary Queen of Scots,* and I must say the results appear to be rather impressive. One of the skulls recreated by Emma Price of Dundee University does indeed look like known life portraits of Darnley (e.g. here). The Daily Herald takes up the story:

Darnley was buried in the Royal Vault, Abbey Church, Holyrood but the vault was raided between 1776 and 1778.

As a result two skulls purporting to be Darnley’s – one held in the University of Edinburgh’s collection and the other owned by the Royal College of Surgeons in London – exist.

The University of Edinburgh engaged the services of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID). Ms Price then took on the project as part of her Masters, which is jointly offered by CAHID and Duncan of Jordanstone.

Ms Price has concluded the Edinburgh skull is not Lord Darnley's.

She said: "The University of Edinburgh had a skull in their collection inscribed ‘The skull of Lord Darnley, found in Kirk o’ Field’ and for years that was believed to be the case but there was another one said to be his at the Royal College of Surgeons. "Then, in 1928, a mathematician and scientist called Dr Karl Pearson analysed the RCS skull and pronounced it to be Darnley’s.

"He was an early pioneer of craniofacial superimposition and he used a technique that had only just been invented but the science has obviously moved on massively since then.

"In order to clear up the mystery, Edinburgh asked me to look at both skulls and find which was the most likely match.

"This wasn’t easy as the RCS skull had been destroyed in the blitz so we had to rebuild it using images and Pearson’s very precise measurements. Craniofacial superimposition is a method of analysis in which an unidentified skull is compared to images of a missing person, or in the case of Lord Darnley, contemporary portraits. Upon completion, one of the skulls was identified as fitting remarkably well.

The features on the portrait such as the very arched eyebrows and distinct sloping forehead led me to conclude that the Edinburgh skull didn’t stand up to scrutiny whereas the RCS one was a good match.  From the analysis I did we can say the Edinburgh skull is definitely not Darnley’s while I produced a craniofacial reconstruction of the other skull presenting a 3D sculpture of what Lord Darnley would have looked like before his untimely death."

Using 3-D software, Emma produced a model of Darnley’s skull and created the reconstruction using wax and silicone.

Update - an artist writes:

A long time ago, I had a studio open to the public in a fairly busy location. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity to use the public as Guinea pigs and subject them to various art related experiments.  One such concerned the accuracy of pre-photographic era portraits.

I would collect together high resolution images of people whose portrait had been painted many times by several different artists - David Garrick for example - print their faces onto A4 sheets of paper and tack them to the studio wall using a proprietary sticky gum.

I would then select one of the printouts at random and set it apart from the rest.  At opportune moments, I would point to the single image and say to my studio visitors - this is a portrait of the 18th century actor David Garrick, can you spot the other portrait of him from among the remaining group of printouts?

After varying lengths of deliberation, one other portrait was usually selected.  In six months, only one person ever said 'all of them', and she revealed herself to be professionally informed.  By contrast, several thought it was a trick and said 'none of them'.

This experiment strengthened my conviction that each artist had developed their own fashionable way of drawing and painting people; that the best artists were at best 90% accurate and that portraitists, within that 10% margin of error, juggled and combined assumptions about (i) how the sitter perceived themself (typically not accurately!), (ii) how they thought the sitter would wish to be remembered and (iii) how things actually were. 

* and one of AHN's great grandpas.

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