3. Willie O' Winsbury
The narratives connecting Spain and the North may have ancient roots, but there is no doubt that the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries became a kind of fulcrum for their distillation into forms that are still very much present in our contemporary cultures. Undoubtedly the dramatic events surrounding the Spanish Armada became a rallying point around which parties on both sides of the conflict built narratives of heroism, villainy and, in keeping with its origins, who exactly was favoured by God.
But, in an increasingly Anglophone-centric world, it’s important to keep in mind that this was hardly the only dramatic event in various wars of religion that took place on and around the continent of Europe itself. It’s also equally important to remember that these narratives and ideas, carried on the Early Modern Age’s information superhighway, the seas, were not only textual and linguistic. Art and visual culture played an increasingly important role in the European societies of these centuries, not only in terms of ideological or narrative content, but also socially.
Thus, it’s hardly surprising that many of the spectres, the visual manifestations of meaning, that we still see in contemporary European art relate back to what might now be roughly considered the period dating from the later Early Modern period through to the Age of Revolutions. There is no denying the significance of religious conflict in this period, whether the Counterreformation’s instrumentalisation of art manifest in the Baroque or state and church responses—sometimes extremely violent—to burgeoning scientific thinking.
But, there are other broader developments and innovations, technological or social, some of them very prosaic and mundane, that ultimately have a huge impact on art and visual culture.
One, for example, is the way in which European seafaring transformed itself from a rather uneasy combination of daring voyages of discovery and coast-hugging trading into a much more robust and regular network of sea routes connecting European ports with each other more effectively. Similarly, there is the evolution of long-haul routes between Africa, the Americas and Asia as various European powers, initially Portugal and later, more magnificently, Spain, capitalise on distant lands with which they had created trading connections or colonised outright.
Nerdy developments in shipbuilding and maritime expertise were one part of this. Another was a paradigm shift in the mindset of European rulers. Apart from the pioneering vision of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, the kingless seafaring states of Venice and Genoa and kings of the Viking nations, most mediaeval European monarchs were notoriously suspicious of the sea, seeing it as a troublesome barrier to moving armies and a financial risk best left to the the purses of the merchant classes.
But, after Isabella and Ferdinand lucked out on a hedged bet that enabled Christopher Columbus to “discover” the Americas in the late 15th century after he’d failed to sell his proposed exploratory journey to investors back in his native Genoa, everything changed. In a surprisingly short time, Spain converted what could well have been a fruitless endeavour into massive windfall.
The histories of how this tentative expedition initially stumbling across the Caribbean turned into a veritable, bloody scramble for silver, gold and many, many other valuable commodities brought back to Spain from the Americas are today learned by every schoolchild around the world, albeit it with very different perspectives and biases, depending on where that kid goes to school.
The new blue economy
For the purposes of True North, there were two very important, often overlooked aspects resulting from all this.
For one thing, it entirely changed how European rulers saw the seas. Those, jealous of Spain’s seemingly bottomless pit of new wealth, practically free for the taking, put their full weight and money behind investing in bigger, better fleets and better trained seafarers. Spain, acutely aware of her competitors’ threats to her monopoly in the Americas, understood the importance of naval supremacy in a linear story that leads directly to the Armada.
Some, like Elizabeth I, unable to compete with Spain’s big budget to build a competitive navy opted for a cunning “dirty war” on the high seas, giving royal approval to freebooters and privateers—essentially pirates—as long as they cut in the English crown on what they were able to capture from the Spanish. Even while contemporary English culture romanticises these seaborne thugs as dashing buccaneers, a PR spin started by Elizabeth herself, it really wasn’t considered fair play by European rulers of the day. Despite transhistoric justifications, she was openly sanctioning the actions of men who today would be considered at best criminals, at worst terrorists.
Later, in post-Armada Europe, other states, such as the Dutch and their new republic, formulated their own competition strategies. In the case of the Dutch, this involved using the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), the world’s first joint-stock company, to absorb the financial risk in exchange for an increased share of the profits in opening up new markets. In an early manifestation of the mercantile spirit (handelsgeest) that today remains part of the Dutch national identity, the VOC was accorded additional powers to act on behalf of the state, similar to those of private contractors acting for the US government in Iraq or Afghanistan in contemporary times. Effectively authorised to act on behalf of the state, the business-savvy board of the VOC favoured a trading post model devoid of the financially and politically risky model of full-blown colonies favoured by Portugal and Spain.
Fast learners, the VOC only ever had one intended permanent settlement, at present-day Cape Town. The logic was simple. The Cape was a strategic staging post on sea trade routes around Africa to Asia, present-day Cape Town affording a sheltering harbour beneath the natural barrier of the mountain against local threats. Furthermore, contemporaneous intelligence suggested the Cape was both sparsely populated—in contrast with parts of the Americas—and that the native peoples posed minimal military threat—unlike the highly organised military societies of Aztec or Inca cultures and their large, defended cities.
This made the Cape an ideal spot for maximum “bang for buck”. By granting land to retired VOC employees, the company could rapidly build a local settlement of those with vested interests in seeing it thrive while ensuring a sufficient, loyal population, not on the military payroll, ready to defend it against hostile invaders should the need arise. One of the local cultures, the Khoikhoi (called “Hottentots” by Dutch settlers) offered more resistance in the early years of the settlement established in 1652 than expected—the Dutch intelligence had not factored in that, as a nomadic, herding people, they only grazed their cattle at the foot of Table Mountain at certain times of the year—but peace was attained through a combination of force and land purchases in the first few decades of the settlement.
Smallpox and other novel antigens (to the region) carried by Dutch settlers and passing sailors wiped out the majority of the Khoikhoi and the remaining Sān (called “Bushmen” by the Dutch settlers)—most of this elusive nomadic hunter-gatherer people had already withdrawn north during the initial Dutch-Khoikhoi conflicts—began to engage with the Dutch settlement, working for or trading with them. The Khoikoi and Sān should not be confused with the Bantu peoples, who were not settled in the Cape and with whom various Bantu-Afrikaner conflicts occurred some two centuries later.
After initial fairly limited conflicts, the Dutch settlers, the (largely muslim) slaves who arrived on VOC ships en route back to Europe from ports in Indonesia, the residual Khoikhoi and Sān and small pockets of other religious European refusenik settlers (e.g. French Huguenots) lived in relative harmony in this odd, two-tier society. For example, it ensured rights for both Dutch settlers and the Khoikhoi as free burghers guaranteed by the VOC that incongruously did not extend to “Malay” slaves, all of whom coexisted to for centuries in a new form of multicultural settlement, effectively under management by a private company.
In many ways, it was an experiment to which the most immediate threat to Dutch settlers was not indigenous peoples, but European competitors. The Cape remained in Dutch (company) hands until 1795, when it was seized by the British. It was given back in 1802 under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens and, once again annexed in 1806, using the pretext of the Napoleonic Wars, supposedly to preserve the interests of some 4000 British settlers— in truth they had been unemployed and unwanted back in Britain— who’d been encouraged to claim land on the southern tip of Africa, many of them settled far away from the Dutch settlement.
Paint me a picture
So, what exactly does any of this this have to do with European art and visual culture?
For one thing, colonies and novel regular trade with distant land introduced exotic plants and materials into the visual canon of painting and printing back in Europe, represented visually for the first time and, in various cases, imbued with qualities and meanings supposedly drawn from exotic, indigenous cultures, even if this was questionable hearsay or pure fantasy far more often than not.
Secondly, the wealth and new materials arriving in Europe from outlying colonies and trading posts had a massive impact on European visual culture, regardless of the religious divide. Gold and silver, quite literally extracted from the Americas, were used in Catholic churches across Europe as a precious, awe-inspiring material in Baroque churches aimed at enticing the masses back to the One True Faith across Europe. Exotic Asian ceramics brought back to the Netherlands became highly prized commodities, as likely to fetch top prices as objects in and of themselves as being depicted in paintings extolling the cornucopia to be found in the homes of affluent merchants. Quite literally, the content and possibilities for painted and printed images changed.
Thirdly, how—and to where—all these ideas captured in images were transported changed. Paintings in the fashionable styles of the day were carried from the Netherlands to the Cape or Spain on increasingly effective sea routes. Prized Spanish metalwork was transported to Mexico to take up its place in the homes of a stupendously wealthy class of Spanish colonists and exquisite Chinese ceramics made the long and perilous journeys from Asia back to Madrid, Amsterdam or Paris. Whereas the Renaissance had seen the phenomenon of talented artists travelling between European courts where patrons were eager to have artists paint commissioned new works in situ, this new era also saw art works themselves transported, not reliant on the artist travelling in order for new imagery and ideas to travel.
Furthermore, in states such as the Dutch Republic of the Golden Age, the very structure of art patronage changed. No longer only the preserve of the church and aristocracy, this proto-democracy favoured the affluent merchant class and enabled the advent of a new “commoner” patron of the arts. In the Lowlands, commercially savvy artists set up workshops that churned out paintings on fashionable topics, in fashionable styles, in varying sizes to suit a variety of pockets.
Paintings, a signifier of status and culture, drove the burghers of the booming Dutch city states crazy. Commercial travellers, spotting an opportunity in the market, would make deals with artists’ studios, load up their wagons and travel from city to city, selling works to the expanding mercantile classes to be proudly displayed in their homes that also served as places of business. What would later become “the art dealer” was born.
In a “trickle-down economic effect” that would make any contemporary rightwing economist proud (assuming he or she could actually work it out how it applies to historic paintings back in the day) this proliferation of material culture spread through many layers of society. Those who could not afford to commission a bespoke portrait in the style of the old nobility could afford a prêt-à-porter still life or landscape; those who could not afford a painting could afford a print, and so on. And, evolving the printing technology that put the “modern” into the Early Modern Age—and incidentally had also led to religious turmoil through the rapid transmission of ideas—meant that those who couldn’t afford a modest painting may well be able to afford a print.
Combined with other social evolutions, such as the reduced sizes of households in the Dutch Republic and other Calvinist and Protestant urban structures—considered to herald the advent of what we now call “domesticity”—also meant the way that art and visual culture was experienced changed.
The way that art was experienced—and by whom—in the unwieldy environs of Versailles or the stiff formality of the Escorial was very different from how it was experienced in the reduced households of the merchant houses of Amsterdam, Calvinist houses in Edinburgh or in the far flung trading posts. In these new designs for how people lived, households were reduced. In Dutch cities, for example, one reason was taxation—households paid tax on the number of servants in their employ.
This actually had far reaching effects. In the Lowlands and Calvinist parts of Scotland, for example, the wives of household heads were no longer trophy wives spending their days at falconry and their nights at the gaming tables. Women gained a new status as effectively managers of households, though in Scotland this came at a price with its particular flavour of punishing misogyny. The Scottish Reformation had brought women better access to education, but it was equally eager to punish them as scolds or witches if they did not toe the line dictated by Calvinist clergy disturbingly eager to find fault with women, supposedly justified by the scriptures. In the Dutch city states, by contrast, women’s rights to protect their inheritances and private property no longer only applied to the aristocracy but were extended to the mercantile and artisan echelons.
If Vermeer’s haunting images and career as a painter were famously bankrolled by his independently rich mother-in-law, so too do his works reflect a paradigm shift in what was considered subject matter worthy of painting. The domestic, still a novel social phenomenon at the time, became something worth painting. Regardless of the more lurid and hyperbolic meanings often attributed to his works, they nonetheless remain scenes from the lives of a newly important affluent middle class. And, more importantly, they (often) do not depict women as some rarefied goddess drawn from classical mythology or great aristocratic ladies with little to do other than linger and look beautiful. There is a way in which his works are staged “social realism” (isn’t it always?).
Within these new types of households, women were living differently. Even if the images of women’s lives painted contemporaneously attributed to women artists can still pretty much be counted on one hand, the lives of these women were notably different from what had come before. The wives of Dutch merchants, or Calvinist Scottish and French Huguenot master craftsmen existed in a brave new world. The “Protestant work ethic”, it seems, was less fussy about gender. Wives were much more active, working partners in the businesses of their husbands. They were accorded a high level of autonomy in how they managed their households, including financially, in the Dutch Republic particularly.
Some classes of women lived in very different households from those of their predecessors. Their homes were very different from those of the aristocracy of the day elsewhere in Europe. At the time that entitled aristocrats competed for venal favours at the French court while pissing under staircases and a nameless army of servants waited upon them—before sleeping under the same piss-stained stairs—these new, largely Protestant, households operated under different rules. Servants were, of course, not accorded the same social position of privilege as the wife of the householder and her offspring. But, undoubtedly, in such radically reduced households, these women lived and worked in much closer proximity to their servants that the wealthy women of earlier centuries. They sewed together and saw the same paintings and tapestries on the wall each day.
While any maid could be summarily dismissed or physically beaten without warning, these new domestic arrangements created both new types of social relations and aspirations. It shifted the kind of intimacy once reserved for great noble ladies and their retinue into the far more pragmatic realm of the domestic realities of the mercantile and artisan classes.
If the point of view was very rarely captured by women artists in the 16th and 17th centuries, this perspective in which “the women’s realm” became worthy of the artist’s gaze nonetheless comes through in True North.
It’s there in Claire de Jong’s paintings and sculptures, deeply and intuitively conscious of the Dutch visual heritage that first cast its gaze into the domestic environment, ambivalently informed by her own experience as a former model long treated as a “trophy wife” for many years before eventually becoming a happy wife and, sadly, all too soon also a grieving widow.
It’s there in Cartriona Shaw’s drawings that, when they’re not acting as a captain’s log of an ill-fated personal voyage, retreat into closely cropped aspects of domestic life that remind us of the power of seemingly small domestic details to anchor us in a world that is familiar and within which we might have some authorship.
It’s also there in the works of Janice McNab. Undoubtedly, her paintings often assail the art historic preeminence of male painters of the period on their own turf, challenging their visual articulations in a feminist language, yet does not back away from their role in creating images of grandeur judged to be worthy of being remembered—by largely male art historians. But, here and there, despite the coldness of ice cream or raw fish, there are moments of a female domesticity drawing on her consummate art historical knowledge, that signal her warmth towards women who may not have chosen the same path or position; a drape of a scarf here or a “girly” depiction of a flower there, as overtly romantic as something you might find in a 19th-century painting. But, of course, entirely not.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."- John 1:1
James Hamilton; 'Still Life' (1698); oil on canvas. National Galleries Scotland.
The only painting attributed to Hamilton with certainty, he is thought to be Scottish though he spent most of his life in Brussels, probably to escape Cromwell's government given that he was a committed Royalist, yet appears to not have returned to Britain upon the Restoration.
To understand evolutions that played out in the cultural articulations of the Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis between it’s first manifestation arising under Elizabeth I and Philip II its second major manifestation under George I, the first Hanoverian English monarch, and Philip V, the first Spanish Bourbon monarch, it’s important to consider what was happening not only in Elizabeth’s stronghold of England, but more importantly in the kingdom of Scotland, then still a distinctly separate kingdom, of which her infant nephew James VI was king.
Protestantism, from a fairly early point in its history, had a strong relationship with iconoclasm. In various Protestant doctrines, particularly Calvinist teachings, Catholic traditions of church decoration and religious statuary were equated with idolatry. In the 16th century, the Great Iconoclasm (Beeldenstorm) played out in the Lowlands, Switzerland and Germany, where churches and monasteries were attacked by Protestants with chisels and limewash, destroying images of saints, friezes and statues of the Holy Virgin.
Nowhere was this more violently played out than in Antwerp in 1566 where the cathedral was stripped of its former Catholic art works and relics amidst what grew into a full-blown religious rebellion across the city that posed a threat, real or perceived, to the authority of devoutly Catholic Spain.
Similar attacks on religious iconography took place across England and Scotland both before and contemporaneous to events unfolding on the continent, though often more carefully controlled and state-managed.
From a perspective of visual culture, there are a number of aspects that are relevant. The most important of these is that what had led to these wars of religion was fundamentally about text. From Luther’s first treatise nailed to a church door to the struggles to get copies of the Bible printed in the day-to-day languages of Europeans, specifically outlawed by the Vatican that ruled that the mass should be delivered in Latin and only priests, not lay people, should be allowed to read the Bible, text, the written word, had been what had set the Reformation in full flight.
Not surprisingly, text gained a new kind of centrality for Protestants. A bit like some Islamic traditions that completely avoid figurative representation in art, some more hardline Protestant and Calvinist clergy entirely disapproved of portraiture, for example, wondering whether it wasn’t a slippery slope back towards idolatry, not to mention the sin of vanity on the part of the sitter.
As a result, in some places, including in Scotland, a new Protestant material culture evolved. In households that could afford it, on walls where portraits that might have previously hung, now prints or embroideries of passages from the Bible could be found. While some Protestant leaders openly encouraged art on devotional subjects, both artists and owners actually shied away from these, particularly paintings depicting the Virgin Mary. Why risk accusations of idolatry? As a result of the Scottish Reformation, both painting and music suffered, church music and choral music schools actually being banned for decades. This led to something of a “brain drain” of Scottish artists. Some headed for London, others for mainland Europe. Given the Catholic church’s traditional role as a patron of the arts, many of these artists were Catholics and headed for Spain, Italy or France. But, even committed Protestant artists, dismayed by Calvinist restrictions on visual arts or music saw the Dutch Republic or Germany are where their futures lay.
Hardline Protestants disapproved of many forms of pleasure. There’s the famous satire of Protestant church leaders—repurposed from Sweden to Scotland, Germany to France—that depicts them in rough woodcuts saying something roughly to the effect of: “We cannot approve of fornication, because it might lead to dancing.”
Thus the ownership and display of paintings not only steered clear of potentially contentious religious scenes, they also avoided anything that showed people experiencing pleasure; dancing, playing music or gambling. Instead, paintings began to favour landscapes and pastoral scenes, especially in staunchly Calvinist locales. Another evolution was that factual, non-pictorial images became popular, most notably maps and sea charts, expensive, painstakingly produced examples in the homes of the wealthy, cheaper printed versions in the homes of the growing urban middle classes.
But, painting was not completely lost. Noble Scots and rich merchants who appreciated art could not be dissuaded from admiring and acquiring paintings. Still lives, particularly of the Vanitas genre, were fairly unassailable. They were difficult to dispute as heresy by Catholics or as excessive indulgence by Protestants because their very mode was intended to warn of the transience of human life and the temporary nature of wealth, beauty or excessive indulgence. Furthermore, Philip II, despite his lifelong devotion to rooting out heresy, had always had something of a soft spot for art from the Lowlands.
This started when he was still heir to the Spanish throne and, while on a tour of the Netherlands, had encountered the work of Jheronimus Bosch. Entranced by Bosch’s strange, hallucinatory worlds, he acquired a number of the works and took them back to Madrid, much to the consternation of some of the clergy who were not entirely convinced of their orthodoxy.
In matters of art, however, the king’s rather progressive tastes were not to be questioned, especially given his devout faith, and he acquired and admired much of the new styles of art arising in Flanders and the Netherlands. Even if he tended towards the Flemish schools of still lives, whether out of logistical expedience or Catholic confederacy, the Dutch Republic may have been a heretical thorn in his side, but their painters, at least, served God.
Both Philip’s relatively lax position on the Vanitas genre—if anyone could question that a still life could be Catholic, think only of the work of Sánchez Cotán who had given up his secular life as a painter to retreat into monastic life—and practicalities made it difficult to police these paintings. Along with other genres including some styles of portraiture not dripping with symbolism indicating the sitters religious or political allegiances, this made it very difficult to tell who was painting them and for whom. For example, a harbour master in Antwerp or Rotterdam could not be expected to identify a still life painted in the Protestant United Provinces versus one from Catholic Flanders.
As a result, there was a small but steady “triangular” trade between Spain, Scotland and the Netherlands. Not subject to Elizabeth I’s rule as a separate country, Scottish vessels were free to trade in ports that the English could often not. In the 16th century, the demand for Scottish wool had declined but the Scots exported increased quantities of more basic goods to Spain: salt, herring, coal and lead ore, among others. Returning north, they would load up on Spanish goods, carefully planning cargos for specific ports. For example, Rotterdam was a port that offered Scottish vessels preferred rates in the 16th century and also one where desirable luxury goods and wines that were in limited supply during the various conflicts between the Spanish and Dutch could command optimum prices.
In turn, while in port in Rotterdam (and to a lesser extent Antwerp) canny Scots merchants would acquire paintings, ceramics, furniture and other luxury goods admired by wealthy or noble Scots. Still lives, available in larger quantities and of far better artistic merit than from Scotland’s now tiny pool of professional painters, did very well for these traders.
If it seems odd that these respected merchants, often professed Protestants, might fall foul of their church leaders, the risks of transporting questionable paintings do not seem out of character with their traditionally shady trading practices.
In 1527, the English ambassador at Antwerp reported that Scottish merchants were taking copies of William Tyndale's 'New Testament' to Edinburgh and St Andrews at a time when Catholicism was still the only legal religion in Scotland. Taking questionable but hardly heretical paintings to a Scotland that had well and truly undergone Reformation on a voyage towards the end of that same century hardly constituted the same level of risk.
Furthermore, in this post-Reformation Scotland, the appetite for those who could afford portraits would not be as easily shaped by Protestant doctrine.
Paint it black
One of the common occurrences today is that lay observers, sometimes even historians, wax lyrical about the pantomime dame grandeur developed by Elizabeth I to create a commanding presence; the massive farthingale skirts and swathes of fabric shot through with gold or silver, the transparent “butterfly” collars and fright wigs veritably dripping in heavy pearls. Elizabeth I was, some conclude, the very picture of radiant royal wealth of an English Golden Age.
By contrast, we look at images of Elizabeth’s elder sister Queen Mary I or paintings of her husband Philip II and the grandees of the Spanish court, dressed from head to toe in black save for lace at the collar and possibly the cuffs. This, we tell ourselves, is the epitome of religious sobriety, the garb of zealots far too serious to have fun. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but if they do thunder through the door, that’s what they’ll be wearing!
This is pure transhistoric projection based on false assumptions. What contemporary viewers may fail to understand, is that black fabric was the most expensive of the period, more expensive than Elizabeth’s glitzy frocks. These portraits of Spanish nobles in black, dramatic as they are, in fact signal the subjects' immense wealth: black was the old bling.
So, while Elizabeth’s styling was consummate, it’s also partly because she, almost out of necessity, developed a new kind of public-facing monarchy. Only by being seen by the common people to reign, and seeming radiant to them, could her initially precarious reign become secure.
By contrast, the self-assured Spanish king and his upper echelons at court were primarily interested in signalling their power and status to each other. Rarely would the Spanish people—never, in the case of those in far-off realms over which he ruled—even see the royal family and the inner circle of the court.
Unsurprisingly, both the nobility and wealthy merchant classes in both England and Scotland defaulted to viewing the Spanish (and some other European courts’) depictions in seriously expensive black as being in far better taste than Elizabeth’s crowd-pleasing glad rags. Though, of course, technically it was more brash taste; conspicuous consumption
The equation of this dour, black clothing in Scotland and Ireland with the Catholic cause is understandable given that it was favoured for portraits by the leading Catholic figures—such as Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband, Lord Darnley—but it was equally favoured by Protestant nobles in both Scotland and England, at least until English portraits sycophantically tended towards Elizabeth’s more colourful attire. For example, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was a long-time favourite of Elizabeth I (and possibly even her lover at one time). He was also the man she wanted her cousin Mary Stuart to marry. An earlier portrait shows him clad in black in very much the style of the Spanish court. Yet, later portraits, as his fortunes held steady in Elizabeth’s famously fickle court, show him dressed in fabrics of far brighter hues.
But, following the ascension of James I to the English throne, by which time Scotland was dominated by Protestant nobles and widespread Calvinism among the general population, this preference for portraits in expensive black fabric does not really change. Scottish lairds still wanted to look flush. So too did the mercantile new money.
While the hardliners in the Scottish church railed against indulgence and the vain display of wealth, they faced a bit of a problem: they’d need to explain why their portraits showed them in black and white get-ups too.
We encounter the odd world of visual signifiers created long before they acquired new meaning in a Celtic context. Protestants, such as the French Huguenots and Swiss Calvinists had developed their “modest” mode of dress that favoured black and white fabrics precisely because the dominant culture of Catholic aristocracy did not. In France in particular, richly decorated, colourful fabrics—not dissimilar to Elizabeth’s own—remained fashionable. Furthermore, there was a something of a “disconnect” between what Protestants were signalling in different regions. In France, where some of the country’s families of royal blood had converted to Protestantism, it really was about a “palette of modesty”. The fact that black fabrics were so expensive was not seen as a sin. Don’t forget that Protestant work ethic. Did not God help those who help themselves?
So when John Knox returned to Scotland from Geneva, fired up on Calvinism, he and his acolytes adopted a simple palette that signified their religion. He seems to have forgotten that, in his homeland, it was also a palette that could signify majesty, Catholic or otherwise. At first, the Protestants worried about Scottish nobles and wealthy merchants using portraiture to signal their allegiance to the Catholic cause—and of course many leading Scottish nobles were Catholic—but, as the Scottish Reformation became embedded within the power structures of state, this settled into an uneasy truce. After all, the Calvinist Scottish clergy couldn’t deliver fire-and-brimstone sermons on the indulgence of expensive black fabrics from their centre-stage pulpits without members of their congregations noticing that they too favoured expensive black fabrics.
But, the way in which the visual culture of the Celtic-Catholic impetus played out in the second major articulation in the 18th century saw a real sea change.
Most significant in this change is that it’s the first time we really see the plaid—tartan—featuring prominently in the clothing of some sitters. For some time during the 18th century, the very appearance of tartan in a portrait, particularly of a noble or royal personage, was an immediate signifier of his or her Jacobite leanings.
Of course tartan has an ancient history and particular meanings in Celtic cultures. On one level tartans are primarily about allegiance. A tartan shows to which clan the wearer belongs in much the same way that gang colours do today. But, their very design is also a narrative of allegiances between clans. According to tradition, the way that tartan designs evolved is that when a clan chief married the daughter of another clan chief, on their wedding night, their respective tartans would be hung over a window, lit from within. Outside, the women weavers would capture this new design and weave the new tartan that would visually symbolise the interwoven allegiance between the clans. Depending on how many allied clans the bride or groom brought to the wedding bed, these alliances might stretch across sprawling regions.
Now, while much of this becomes romanticised in19th-century revivals and, undoubtedly, tartans played a role in ancient Scottish royal dynasties, by the Early Modern Period, they were almost considered an embarrassment by the Scottish aristocracy. After all these were the rough wool fabrics worn by the Gaelic-speaking farmers and herders, not by an educated elite wanting to play its part on the European stage.
Thus, its rather sudden re-appearance and rapid prevalence in portraits of those favouring the Jacobite cause is surprising, especially because some of the individuals depicted in these portraits had never even been to Scotland, living in exile all their lives.
Of course it proved effective propaganda. It helped the likeminded identify each other—though many in this fairly small cohort of Scottish Catholic aristocracy abroad already knew each other—but it also acted as a kind of nationalistic call to arms to the broader Scottish population; a call to not be forced under the rule of a German king who was not part of their own Scottish royal Stuart line.
In salons of rich and powerful sympathisers in London, France, Italy and the Americas, these portraits also stood as a kind of rallying cry for those committed to the Jacobite cause. But, on a different level, they indicate a shift in style, one in which the traditional Spanish and Flemish schools of painting that had influenced the earlier articulation give way to a far more eclectic, lighter style of painting in which contrasts and shadows are far softer and fabrics far brighter—how could they not be with so much tartan?
This partly reflects the fact that the painters creating these works were trained in different schools, often working in countries where these exiled Jacobites lived. Unsurprisingly, French and Italian painters feature frequently. But, it’s also a time in which British painters such as Richard Wilson and William Mosman lend their brushes to the cause.
Though the British crown became increasingly repressive as the Jacobite cause first actually staged an uprising and subsequently refused to go away, a lot of these symbols of direct opposition to the crown—what would have summarily resulted in arrest for treason in an earlier age—were fairly openly displayed at first, those commissioning them protected by both their high status and a British legal system that, much as they might hate it, had curtailed the direct power of kings.
Simultaneously, the unfolding Enlightenment had brought a kind of rational counterbalance to Calvinist dogma meaning that even those plotting to overthrow the existing monarchy could look both serious and bonnie.
Among one of the painters who played a key role in the popularisation and dissemination of this style of portraiture was Sir John Baptiste de Medina. The son of a Spanish army captain posted to Brussels, he first trained in Flanders before opening a studio in London where he rapidly developed a reputation amongst Scottish aristocratic sitters, one of whom invited him to move to Edinburgh, which he did in around 1688.
De Medina rapidly became the society portraitist of the day. While his portraits of leading Jacobites notably lack the tartan of later paintings by others, the fact that his sitters were openly Jacobites or Unionists indicates that both were considered valid political positions prior to Union. De Medina was knighted by the Scottish parliament in 1706, shortly before Union, and he never lived to see the first Jacobite rising.
By crossing the line into armed rebellion, the Jacobites shifted from being a tolerated political cause accepted in the salons of the elite to being classified as treasonous traitors. A far more cynical reading of the prevalence of tartan in later Jacobite portraiture—when the cause was already outlawed and criminalised—was that it was intended to directly to appeal to those whose belief in Scottish autonomy had no room for complex treaties negotiated in Edinburgh and London, the wild Highlanders and Islanders who'd be unlikely to be shown English mercy if the cause they supported failed.
Transhistoricism and blatant untruths cloud how we today understand the ideologies involved in the Jacobite risings. Romanticised representations of Jacobite folkloric figures perpetuated by film and TV dramas are readily consumed and naturally embraced by groups with a grudge to bear against Georgian England, whether Americans who remember the English under Hanoverian rule as "the bad guys" in their own Republican narrative or diasporan Irish and Scots, including, somewhat bizarrely staunchly Protestant communities of Scottish descent, seemingly oblivious of some of the core tenets at the heart of the Jacobite cause.
At the risk of another tanshistoricism, one might say that it is possible to view these paintings with the same critical reading that some pacifists level at contemporary military recruitment campaigns; that they use imagery specifically designed to appeal to young people failed by their own societies where they feel no dignity and have very limited opportunities with promises of adventure and the possibility of gaining respect and pride.
From a good old-fashioned Marxist perspective, there really were no "good guys" running the show on either side. Yes, most certainly, the English abused the Scots of all religious leanings, something that still smarts in the collective consciousness today. But, similarly, the Catholic nobles in the Jacobite camp were a dire lot, all told. Generally fervent supporters of the absolutist monarchy model still holding strong in Spain and France—no small contributor to the later French Revolution—they were also knee-deep in the slave trade and exploitation of British colonies. One of the lesser told histories is how both James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) and later his ill-fated son Charles I, both dealt with troublesome Scottish nobles of either faith by granting them various rights and property grants away from the British mainland. In the case of James, "plantations" meant granting committed Protestants titles and land in Ireland. Initially these spoils went to his favoured subjects. But, later, he also discovered that Ireland could prove a helpful distance for troublesome Protestants not supportive of his efforts to bring about peace with Catholic Spain. Later, under his son, conveniently distant colonies, such as those in the Caribbean, could prove enticing to Catholic Scottish nobles who proved politically painful closer to home.
Ironically, this policy of "distraction by distance" somewhat backfired. During the years of civil wars in Britain and Ireland, the very real end of Charles I and the subsequent Cromwellian regime, affairs at home somewhat obscured what was happening in distant colonies. As a result, a number of Scottish Catholic nobles, by the time of the first Jacobite rising, had amassed wealth through their interests in the colonies, maritime commerce and the slave trade.
Alonso Sánchez Coello, 'Portrait of Philip II of Spain, with the Order of the Golden Fleece', oil on canvas, circa 1568. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
George Wishart was a leading figure in the Scottish Reformation. While his life was actually a complex one—he was one of the Scottish diplomats tasked with negotiating the proposed marriage of Edward VI and Mary, Queen of Scots—he is primarily remembered a Protestant martyr, burned at the stake in 1546 after being condemned as an obstinate heretic by Cardinal David Beaton of Bethune, Archbishop of St Andrews.
Anonymous, 'Portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots', oil on canvas, circa 1610-1615. National Galleries Scotland
Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald helped Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, escape to Skye by boat following defeat at the Battle of Culloden. She was arrested for her part in assisting him and taken prisoner to London. She commissioned this portrait after her release.
While Scotland's deep complicity in the slave trade has been discussed in detail in various contexts by historians in recent decades, this portrait by one of the most fashionable portraitists of Scottish society of the day reveals a lesser discussed aspects of that complicity, namely the connection between the Jacobites and slavery. Increasingly historians are uncovering evidence of how Jacobite nobles funded their cause through wealth generated by the slave trade and plantations in the West Indies. After defeat at the Battle of Sherrifmuir, Drummond fled to Paris where he later died in exile.