Repainting the Jacobites: The two faces of Bonny Prince Charlie

The history of Scotland has always been buried under convenient romanticism. No more is this true than in the ways we remember the Jacobite cause.

A central picture of the Scottish Artists 1750-1900 exhibition now showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is Bonny Prince Charlie Entering The Ballroom At Holyrood House.

The painting was made in 1891/2 by John Pettie (1839-1893).

The picture shows an arrogant, youthful and defiantly deluded Young Pretender striding into the ballroom at Holyrood, pouting with self-satisfaction.

Bonnie_Prince_Charlie_by_John_Pettie
Bonny Prince Charlie Entering The Ballroom At Holyrood House (1891/2) by John Pettie

Pristine, almost fascist in his princely garb, Charlie is flanked by two looming highlanders in the shadows.The picture is not factual, but self-consciously lifted from Sir Walter Scott’s portrayal of Charles Stuart in Waverly.

Not only was there never a ball, the congregated army at Holyrood was probably not so joyful or cockily secure in its position.

Already by this point, were the cracks in the Jacobite cause starting to show.

The painting reveals the significance of Charlie’s romantic beauty, his seductive resonance as a historical curiosity.

A late Victorian depiction of the Jacobite atrocity used beauty and continental sexuality to secure the episode’s history in mythic fancy.

The rebellions became nothing more than bourgeois digressions, like the age of chivalry and the Knights of the Roundtable.

The Hanoverians were eventually happy to embrace the romance of the Stuart tragedy, because it helped to do away with that family’s legitimacy.

If they could be trapped in history as attractive and legendary fuck-ups, then they were condemned never to be a threat to the Sax-Cobourg usurpation.

Similar to empire and Orientalism, romanticising and turning the complex and volatile events of recent history in Scotland into neutered throwbacks allowed the British industrial establishment to draw a line between the BC/AD crossover of 1707.

There is no hint of irony in showing this picture in Buckingham Palace. The ersatz history of cod-romanticism still serves a purpose in corporate Britain.

However, no sooner had Pettie’s picture been hung in London when a genuine portrait of Prince Charlie (1745) was bought by the National Galleries of Scotland.

This picture is an original source from the ’45, painted at Holyrood palace at the time of the occupation, by the genius Scots painter Allan Ramsay.

In it we see the real Charles Edward Stuart, a military, stony-faced and much more mature man than the pretty wide-boy of Scott and Pettie’s invention.

charlie2
Charles Edward Stuart (1745) by Allan Ramsay

The sitter is pensive, and anxiety and strength battle it out under a recognisably Stuart mask of pride and will.

There’s also a sense of the Young Pretender being haggard despite being well groomed.

Ramsay’s portrait is scarily different from Pettie’s. The romance is replaced with honesty, and the humble beauty of Ramsay’s brush.

Charlie is pictured alone, a marked man, and in place of the arrogance of the later picture is a Napoleonic self-command, a dangerous but palpable royal honour in his steely eyes.

Romance, myth and a faery-tail atmosphere make it easier to control the effects of the past on the present. Herein lies the reason for this timely exhibition.

Scottish Artists 1750-1900: From Caledonia to the Continent, is showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until October 9.

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