art history · history · Scottish History

A Study in Portrait: Charles Edward Stuart

Portraits and image have always been important for those of royal status in every part of the world, especially in European history. These portraits had to show their power, their status, and, in many cases, show that they are appointed by God/higher being. I used to study art history in university as well and portraiture was always the most interesting to me. I love to study people, their stories, and the legacy they wanted to leave behind. The way a person crafts their image in portraits is a way of creating their ideal legacy, even though it may not be the truest example. Since I was writing this on Outlander Sunday, I wanted to explore the portraiture of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) who I wrote a bit about in my Culloden post about two weeks ago (Inspired by Outlander: Culloden and its Aftermath ). 

The Stuarts had been exiled since James II was kicked out and replaced with William and Mary during the Glorious Revolution. Yet, still the Stuarts were trying to reclaim what they felt was their divine right. After failed risings by both James II and James III (the former’s son), a Stuart court was formed in Rome sponsored by the Pope (as the Pope had an interested in seeing a Catholic monarch back on the throne in England). So basically…James and his wife Clementina were living a lavish life as “monarchs” on someone else’s dime (sign me up!!!). Charles Stuart was born on December 31, 1720 and this was an extremely big deal to all Jacobite supporters, Catholic countries (such as France) and the Stuart court in Rome. A hopeless cause for 32 years now had some hope, a male heir was born. “The coincidence of his birth with the Christmas festivities and the end of the year was immediately read as a portent and the story of a new star being seen over Rome was widely believed…This, of course ensured a doubly powerful reading of Charles’s birth…as an embodiment of a natural–inevitable–rebirth of hope.” (Nicholson, 37).

As a result of this, James II commissioned many portraits of his two sons (mostly Charles) to emphasize the idea that Charles was the great hero who was going to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Charles grew up with the idea that it was his destiny to take England back. To me, that sounds like a very stressful expectation to be put on a young man. The exiled Stuarts sponsored many artists in Italy and even some who traveled far in order to paint their portraits, despite the fact they were essentially still pretending to be monarchs in their fake court.

When looking at the early portraits of Charles Edward Stuart in Rome he appears to have retained many of the facial features of his mother which soften the typical hard, pointed features of the Stuarts. He appears to be an attractive and charming boy, and you can see why he would retain the nickname “Bonnie”. Though Charles may not have strong facial features like his father, he is painted in a way that shows his body pushing forward towards the viewer; which is a way to display self confidence and a headstrong attitude that Charles would need if he was going to be the hero to take back England. Often he is shown with his hand resting on his hip, again displaying confidence and assertiveness. One of the portraits I really like is one by Louis-Gabriel Blanchet (as shown in the featured image) posing Charles in full armor. He is shown with his hand on his hip like before, but this time he is about to grasp his sword. His left arm rests on an elaborate war helmet while royal furs are draped around him. He stares at the viewer directly. I particularly enjoy how this caption puts it, “prepared for war, he seems paused in time, poised before heading onwards to glory in the smoke of battle which rises behind.” (Nicholson, photo appendix). This is the man you would want to follow into battle as he is a man of action, one who wins battles, and will take back his destiny. Whether this will be true or not, this is the image the Stuarts were trying to paint of their heir.

You bet these images were all used for propaganda purposes in order to show that the Stuart cause was greater than the Hanovers of England. James started to commission medals of his sons, showing one brother on each side of the coin. Charles’s portrait on the medal was created in a classic Roman style. He was armored, cloaked, and wearing curls in the Graeco-Roman style. They wanted Prince Charles to be compared to the hero Aeneas. These coins were sent around Europe and they were noticed. They even gained a response from George II who commissioned a larger medal with portraits of all seven of his children on the back.

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Attributed to William Mosman, c 1750, oil on canvas, 76×64 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

During the 1740s Charles Edward Stuart needed the support of the Scots in order to complete his destiny and again needed to restyle his image. He did this by using the tartan and by becoming the legend of the “Highland Laddie”. By this time tartan was a very Scottish symbol. The Stuarts used this clothing and symbolism to emphasize their origins to the people of Scotland. They wanted to show how they were the descendants of a very ancient line of Scotland royalty and that they were the ones who were going to bring these glory days back and bring pride back to Scotland. Charles dressed himself in tartan to present himself as the ideal Highlander. I like how Nicholson puts it in his study regarding the tartan portraits it was, “the ideal cloth of the “natural man,” colored, as it was, with the vegetable dyes of the wearer’s homeland. It was the true cloth of the loyal patriotic Highlander…” Charles was appealing to their pride and showing that he was one of them, a true Scotsman ready to take on the English and restore the original royal line of Scotland. He did wear tartan in real life when entering towns and especially at the capture of Edinburgh. The tartan became a part of how people remembered Charles Stuart since during the year of 1745 he was usually seen in public in Highland garb. I could definitely see why this would be a morale booster for the troops and why, after the ‘45 rebellion, this type of clothing would have been banned. It was such an important symbol of the Jacobites  and at the forefront was the “bonnie” Prince Charlie becoming an representation of that symbol.

The tartan images of Charles were also engraved on drinking glasses. I thought these were very interesting. He would always be present at every meal these glasses would be used at, where the Jacobites would toast their Prince and always be reminded of his mission. He was their Highlander hero and savior.

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George William Joy, Flora MacDonald’s Farewell to Prince Chalres, 1891, oil on canvas, 163cm x 126 cm

As we know the Jacobite rising failed and that ended with the defeat of Charles Edward Stuart, but his legacy lived on. He became something of an important Scottish symbol over one hundred years after the rising. The images of Charles were ways to go back to the glory days before the restrictions placed on Scotland suppressed much of their culture. I did not know this before I researched, but the Bonnie Prince Charlie had a very large revival during the Victorian era (1830s and 1840s). Young Queen Victoria felt that it was her “duty” to represent her Stuart ancestors and she had a love of the old Highland culture. This is where the myth of the “Bonnie Prince Charlie” began as the history paintings of the Victorian era began to create a romantic vision. A hero who was virtuous and noble, yet was always doomed to tragedy. The paintings are dramatic, beautiful, and stretch the historical truth. But, they kept Charles Stuart alive and, despite pretty much becoming a drunk nobody after the ‘45, he was still remembered as a heroic symbol of Scottish pride, a nostalgic symbol of “a fading cause” or the good old days,  and was used to idealize history.

Further Reading:

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Making of a Myth: A Study in Portraiture by Robin Nicholson

Jacobites: A New History of the ‘45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding

Check out my last post to learn more about the forgotten Battle of Stamford Bridge! ->    Stamford Bridge: The Last Victory of Harold II

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