Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Highland Chieftain, 1870 

Kenneth MacLeay R.S.A (1802-1878)

Portrait of a Highland Chieftain, 1870, Kenneth MacLeay
Oil on canvas
19th Century
9½ x 7 in (23.25 x 17.7 cm)
Archibald Kerr, Loch Lomond
Royal Scottish Academy 1870 (no. 68)
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Macleay is best known for his watercolour and miniature portraits of Scottish sitters, and for The Highlanders of Scotland, a complete illustrated record commissioned by Queen Victoria. of her Scottish retainers and clansmen.

He also produced a number of oil paintings of more generalised and historical Highland subjects. The present painting is an example of these. Although exhibited in 1870 under the title of Portrait of a Highland Chief the subject is more elevated than that mere description implies. The direct source for this majestic image of a warrior general is a painting of King Robert the Bruce by George Jameson c.1618, which was executed as one of a series of heroes and great Scottish kings for a pageant. The image with its distinctive helmet and fierce characterisation was engraved numerous times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until it acquired a somewhat iconic status.

Macleay employs the variant of a marshal’s baton to the battleaxe in the Jameson painting, but he enhances the sense of defiance and resolution suggested in the king’s expression. The execution shows the painter’s competence in the medium, and although the small scale is typical of the artist’s commissioned watercolour portraits, there is a presence and a grasp of drama that approaches the Scottish romanticism of John Pettie.
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