Article by Dr. Jim Lawson, University of Edinburgh, ECA, Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Jacobites by Name, is an important show. It consists of a series of interventions, in the Jacobite Gallery of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, through which the artist presents a rich meditation upon Scotland, her history and her myths. It is doubly appropriate for the venue, for it is a serious and illuminating meditation upon the portrait itself. The institution is offered an enriching example of how it might understand the genre that it is its role to represent to the public.
To begin with, Colvin has built a stage-set. In the corner of the studio is a podium. On it, a chair is ready, covered by a dust-sheet, for the arrival of the portrait-sitter. Or else the work has been done, and the place has been returned to shrouded dust-gathering. At the rear of the space the back of a canvas faces us. There either is a portrait painted or there is not. In addition, and opening up another possibility, is the guitar that rests on the chair. We are in the corner of the pub, and the folk-musician will begin or has finished an Old Song.
Colvin has made a number of works using the set and projecting upon it a number of portraits held by the National Galleries. Charles Edward Stuart is the subject, the sitter and the protagonist. On any occasion the scene can include different props, different detritus. It becomes explicitly the artist’s studio in one instance, where the apparatus of the painter appears (and included for his inspiration is a picture of a specimen of a butterfly –which we shall find ourselves looking out for elsewhere in the exhibition). Where the young Charles Edward had been half-seen and half-imagined –Cherubino avant la lettre– an ornament to any lady’s salon, the textures and colours of the cream-tea that has been delivered to the studio prepares the scene, and the projection of the portrait (by William Mosman) takes place. The painter is at work on the other side of the canvas, only his bare feet visible. When the sitter does, as-it-were, turn up (when the transparency of Johann Georg Wille’s engraving of Charles Edward in armour, of 1748, is put in the back of the camera), a scottie-dog in plaster is set on the chair pointed intently at an old wind-up gramophone. There’ll be no changing of the record in this re-marketing of HMV and re-presenting of Millais’ theme –for Jacobite Jocks. The same dog will be attentive to the same gramophone when the engraving is replaced by Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s portrait of Charles Edward as an old man.
Because of the palimpsestical nature of Colvin’s final pictures, there is a quality of transparency to their content. Presences are ghostly. The portraits, transformed by Colvin’s process, take on an air which we realise they always possess and which by a switch of the mind becomes manifest –their spectral air. No matter how animated the portrait, the sitter is dead –ever there, like an incubus, ready to be called forth.
As the sitter is dead, so his narrative spools back behind a layering of veils. And the final act turns to smoke all that has gone before. So it is of Charles Edward, youth of promise –the painters tell us– warrior, romantic escapee, site of hopes betrayed by longevity. We see youth juxtaposed with age in the corrugated double portrait, the one visible on one 45-degree viewing angle, the other on the other.[Lochaber No More, using Wille’s engraving and Hamilton’s painting] It is the tersest of biographies. But Colvin out-does himself in a four-stage image of Charles Edward of astonishing thematic and narrative richness.
The man that we have is present in the mind in complex and ambiguous form. He is here before us in Colvin’s quadruple portrait that, by means of lenticular technology, shifts through time as we move across the picture plane. [Pretender] The image is also presented in its component parts.[Pretender I-IV] An armoured Charles Edward now sports a plaid.
A new stage has been set up for this occasion, this epic. At the back of the space is a lacy-curtained window. Two classical columns frame the hero. The stage is occupied by a pile of rocks from which rises a rocking-horse –or rather, a rearing toy horse. A multitude of ancillary material is included. Here is the triumphant campaign and its desolate conclusion. At first, Charles Edward’s portrait dominates the scene. Toy soldiers are marshalled in tight formation. By stages, the set breaks forward through the projected picture-plane, and the features of the Pretender, first disrupted, are at length abraded by the scene, which itself changes to one of disorder. Finally, the horse is riderless and the repute of the hero is at the mercy of the victors, the Pretender at last nothing more than the word engraved on the side of the toy-horse, ‘Rebel’. The view through the window is now of Culloden Wood. A brass repoussoir disc with galleons in sail is turned to concavity. Scarcely to be made out, there survive some fragments of the curtain and a few of its embroidered butterflies.
The scene is shifting. So is the physical, and the intellectual perspective. The exhibition –or, we should remind ourselves, the intervention, for the holdings of the SNPG in the Jacobite Gallery participate in the work– becomes a most acute meditation upon the portrait itself. Charles Edward’s likeness is a particularly telling instance of the portrait acting cameleon-like with regard to whom it purports to represent. The various likenesses of Charles Edward –connected to his fame or else to his notoriety– comprise a portrait supplied by the man who lent his features, created variously by the various artists, made problematic by the conflict of Jacobitism and Hanoverianism, sentimentalised in accordance with the Scottish vice.
In Charles Edward, Colvin has chosen an intriguing case. The romantic narrative has it that he is most famous for his disguise. It was mumming as Flora Macdonald’s maid, Betty Burke, that he escaped the battlefield at Culloden, crossed the country and threw it off at last, escaping eventually to Italy and the protection of Protestantism’s old enemy. The hedge-betting that had seen him named after the Catholic martyr and a successor of the Hammer of the Scots was done with. On the other hand, disguise could be effected by the painter or draughtsman. Charles Edward was depicted on many occasions by illustrators working, as Chinese Whispers do, from copies and from copies of copies. They could, equally, superimpose their own ignorance or confusion. Charles Edward was on one occasion turned into Harlequin by an anonymous artist who perhaps misconstrued another artist’s muddled understanding of tartan garb.[G. Will after Wassdail]
His likeness was to be hidden from the enemy by conspiratorial Jacobites. At the same time, it was to be revealed among the like-minded. Colvin documents those evasions and disclosures. He has created miniatures of his own representations of Charles Edward, to be hidden under snuff-box lids and in suchlike places. An original example has been lent by Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. At the same time, again, Charles Edward has a material currency in tat –recreated as a minute embroidery of Colvin’s version of the Harlequin portrait, or printed on a plate. At this point, the image is of the character of a cult-object, and the interest in it quasi-religious. The same can be said for its later manifestation on the proverbial shortbread tin. [It’s Walker’s Shortbread.]
The most spectacular of the works that hide Charles Edward’s likeness in the exhibition is an anamorphic version of the cream-cake picture. It is stretched into the shape of a donut and is laid on a table, like a Ouija board. Examples of such images survive from the 18th century. They were surely for the entertainment of gatherings of conspirators or ex-conspirators. The picture would be brought out, a polished silver drinking vessel would be set at the donut’s centre, and the diners or topers could see reflected in the cylindrical mirror –for that was what the vessel was in effect– the image of the Prince over the Water. All 360 degrees of Colvin’s stage-set can be seen in reflection. It is a most remarkable sensation to find oneself in the centre of Colvin’s room!
Jacobites By Name is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 14th November 2015 − 27th March 2016
A limited edition plate and a limited edition print have been produced for this exhibition.