Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) 1600c.

 English School 

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587),  English School
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Oil on canvas
17th Century
76.5 x 64 cm, 30 x 25 in.
 
Provenance:
The Lords Chesham collection, Latimer (by 1913);
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Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most tragic and ironic figures of the sixteenth century; tragic because she was as much the victim of others as her own misjudgment, ironic because the object that led to her execution, the English crown, was gifted to her son James I without question barely two decades after her death.

The very nature of Mary’s sad end is directly responsible for this portrait. It is one of few examples of a portrait known as the ‘Sheffield’ type. What was thought to be the original version [Hardwicke Hall] was said to have been painted while Mary was in captivity at Sheffield Castle. However, this is unlikely, for the likeness seen here is most probably a derivation of Nicholas Hilliard’s fine c.1578 miniature [Royal Collection]. It seems, instead, that the production of this portrait type grew from James I’s policy of rehabilitating Mary’s memory in the early seventeenth century.

James I never knew his mother, but sought to suppress her poor reputation when he became king of England in 1603. His succession to the throne depended on his descent from Mary, and to have her remembered as a flawed, if cunning political opportunist could only harm his position. Hence the flamboyant and regal tomb erected to her memory in Westminster Abbey in 1606, as well as portraits of the type seen here, which very consciously elevate Mary into the status of pious victim – martyred, misunderstood, magisterial.

Mary is portrayed in mourning, with a prominent cross, and no conspicuous jewellery. The inscription is crucial to interpreting the picture, and translates as; ‘Mary, by the Grace of God, most Pious Queen of Scotland, Queen Dowager of France’, and refers, fancifully, to the date of the picture being the tenth anniversary of her captivity in England, 1578. It is noticeable that the picture makes no mention of Mary’s attempts to claim the English throne, nor the fact that she was unceremoniously evicted from both her former kingdoms of France and Scotland. The portrait is, therefore, as much an exercise in redemption as a record of her likeness.
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