Immortality at Last – A Lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie as Lost Ramsay Portrait is Found!
Scotland rules my heart and my blood. I only have to close my eyes to transport myself back in time to a self-contained twelve- year-old girl who loved novels and poetry. I would listen often to my melancholy father, a Scot in exile, reading Robert Burns’ Lament for Culloden and the even more affecting – Lament for Flodden by Elliott, from the Golden Treasury, with these lines – ‘The flowers of the Forest are a’ wede a way’…. and all the while telling me the legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie, The Skye Boat Song and fearless lioness, Flora McDonald. I’ve stood on the lonesome shingle beach at Eriskay, in the Western Isles, and inhailed the smell of peat and heard the cry of the curlew, in the same spot where the Prince first came ashore from France, with a throne in his sights. It is intoxicating stuff.
So, I was very curious to watch the BBC Culture Show Special on The Hunt for The Lost Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie – still one of the great unsolved mysteries of the art world.
Scotland’s Immortal Prince
Charles Edward Stewart, better known to the world as Bonnie Prince Charlie, stares defiantly from Alan Ramsay’s lost, animated, marvellous portrait of 1745. Now, at last we know why Scotland’s immortal hero was able to raise the Jacobite rebellion in the same year. He looks as if he could do anything. Whatever it is, he’s got it. The kind of the charisma that would make grown men, and Flora McDonald, risk everything to aid a prince who believed in the divine right of kings. Charles Edward Stewart had red hair, black eyes and a thoughtful, melancholy countenance and was famously persuasive. During the months leading up the rebellion, it was said, ‘ If this prince sets eyes upon you, he will make you do whatever he pleases’.
Dr Bendor Grosvenor uncovers the portrait after taking the audience along on a great historical detective story, which makes for gripping, freewheeling television. Part history lesson, boys’ own adventure and romance of the road trip – is the one of the best things the BBC has commissioned in ages. Please give us more historical capers with this erudite, equally engaging art historian. Of course, it helps that his shining chariot, a Daytona motorbike ,adds a daring sense of rebellion and modernity.
Breaking Scottish Hearts
It is great fun to learn that Dr Grosvenor has previous form too, when it comes to the legend of Scotland’s prince. In 2008, he broke a lot of Scottish hearts, when he made the discovery that the celebrated portrait of the prince in armour, ready to lead his men into battle, was not the young pretender at all, but rather his ever so slightly more handsome younger brother Henry, who would later become a catholic cardinal. Maurice Quentin De La Tour’s portrait is wonderful. But it is not BPC, and now it languishes in the vaults at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is a shame, as Bendor says rather wistfully, it is one of the finest paintings in Scotland. Damn.
Portraiture as Propaganda
With the scene set, Dr Grosvenor is convinced that Charles Edward Stewart did sit for a portrait in the year of the uprising, because portraiture was the celebrity photo shoot of the day – it was the most potent form of political propaganda. After travelling the length and breadth of Britain, on the trail of the twenty-four year old prince, Grosvenor unearths a dynamite letter in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which throws new light on his theory of a lost portrait painted in Britain at the time of the uprising. The prince’s valet dispatches a handwritten summons to Ramsay, Scotland’s finest portrait artist, to go to Holyrood Palace to paint his master. The year is 1745. After many historical twists and turns and dead ends, the moment when the Countess Wemyss casually leads our audacious sleuth to the portrait in a darkened passageway of Gosford House is thrilling. It is quite remarkable that the portrait has been in the possession of the Dukes of Wemyss, outside Edinburgh, for over two hundred and fifty years, undetected and hidden from a curious world and attributed to someone else. I wonder if it wasn’t a cherished, well-kept secret after the harsh reprisals following the Prince’s rebellion, when even wearing tartan was a hanging offence?
The authenticity of the portrait is confirmed during the making of the programme by Dr Duncan Thompson, an expert on Ramsay’s work.
Unable to contain his excitement, Dr Ramsay says, “This portrait brings the Prince back to life in a way I’d never thought imaginable. It’s hard to overstate the importance of finding a portrait of the Prince painted in Scotland, by a Scottish artist.”
The Thrill of a 250 Year-Old Secret
Of course it is very timely, with the referendum on Scottish independence looming. Even so, as a Scot, I don’t believe that it would be good for Scotland or Scots to leave the union. I think it would be a disaster both economically and spiritually. Too many old wounds. We can celebrate Bonnie Prince Charlie, a prince amongst men for his audacious uprising, three hundred years ago, and all that he stood for; but the moment is now history.
Now I’m going to toast the prince with a very fine single malt, read some Burns and look forward to seeing Ramsay’s portrait everywhere – now as Dr Grosvenor suggests, Bonnie Prince Charlie might have lost the battle at Culloden, but he has gained something finer – ‘ a kind of immortality’ – and I can’t wait to see what this agent provocateur of the art world uncovers next.
This review is dedicated to a modern prince with black eyes.