Dr. Caroline Rae of London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art was conducting research into a 16th-century portrait by Adrian Vanson. It was a painting of a notable Scottish figure, Lord Chancellor Sir John Maitland. One of the techniques Rae used involved advanced x-ray technology. And what she found under the painting of Maitland has astonished the art world.
Adrian Vanson, whose work is seen here in this 1585 portrait of the Scottish king James VI, was probably born in modern-day Holland. Vanson was appointed King’s Painter in 1584, with an annual payment of £100, a handsome sum at the time. In this role, he went on to paint many members of the Scottish aristocracy.
The influence of the Italian Renaissance had spread to Scotland in the 15th century, with the help of Dutch painters who were active in the country at the time. And by the mid-16th century, portrait painting in particular had become popular among the wealthy and powerful in Scottish society. This portrait of Agnes Douglas from 1599 is another of Vanson’s works.
And the Scots subsequently developed a particular genre of painting that has come to be known as the “vendetta portrait.” These were intended to commemorate injustices perpetrated on certain individuals. One such example was the gruesome painting seen here. It shows the disfigured corpse of James Stewart, Earl of Moray, who was murdered in 1591 by the Marquess of Huntly.
But the portrait that we’re concerned with was Vanson’s 1585 painting of John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane. In keeping with the ups and downs that characterized the volatile politics of 16th-century Scotland, Maitland had spent time in prison. But by 1581 he was back in favor and became the Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland, before being appointed Lord Chancellor.
And more than 400 years later, Vanson’s 1589 portrait of Maitland came under scrutiny at the Courtald Institute in London. Conservator Dr. Caroline Rae was employing a variety of techniques to unlock the secrets of the portrait. But it was the use of x-ray technology that would lead to the most exciting revelation.
The x-ray technique that Rae was using is capable of seeing through layers of paint to discover any secrets that lie beneath them. And in this case, Rae uncovered a sketch done in lead-white paint, a medium that the x-rays do not penetrate.
And the subject of the sketch, which had been painted over with the portrait of Maitland, was one of Scotland’s most iconic and tragic historic figures, Mary Stuart. She’s perhaps best known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Rae was able to confirm this by comparing the drawing to other contemporary images of Mary.
Mary Stuart was born near Edinburgh in 1542 at the splendid Linlithgow Palace, which is still standing today. She was the daughter of Scotland’s James V and his French wife Mary of Guise. Tragedy struck early in Mary’s life, however, as her father died just six days after she was born. As the king’s only legitimate child, she therefore succeeded to the throne while still a tiny infant.
Since Mary was a babe in arms when she inherited the throne of Scotland, the country was ruled by regents. But Mary was nonetheless quickly drawn into the politics of Scotland’s troublesome neighbor, England. Henry VIII drew up the Treaty of Greenwich, which would have seen Mary marry Henry’s son Edward when she was ten. But the Scottish Parliament subsequently rejected Henry’s proposals.
Henry, never a man who liked to be thwarted in his designs, then launched a military campaign against Scotland. In a period known as the “Rough Wooing,” Henry inflicted a significant defeat on the Scottish forces at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh outside Edinburgh. An estimated 6,000 Scots were slaughtered, and the day came to be called “Black Saturday” in the country.
The Scots were concerned for Mary’s well-being and turned to their ally, France, for help. A treaty was signed stipulating that Mary would marry Francis, the son and heir of the French monarch, Henry II. French forces duly landed in Scotland and Mary was spirited off to France in August 1548. And she was to live there at the French court for the next 13 years.
Back in England, Henry VIII had died in 1547 at the age of 55, to be succeeded by his nine-year-old son, who became Edward VI. He in turn died in 1553 and was succeeded by Mary Tudor, better known as Queen Mary. She didn’t last long either, however, and Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. And this merry-go-round of successions was to have serious consequences for Mary Stuart.
The historical context of the time was marked by the Reformation, which involved the transformation of England and Scotland from Catholic to Protestant nations. Elizabeth was happy to uphold the Protestant religion in England, while in contrast Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic and hoped to see her religion restored to predominance.
And many Catholics in England and Scotland now pointed to the fact that Elizabeth had at one point been deemed illegitimate and therefore not qualified to take then English throne. In fact, a special act had been passed by the English Parliament to enable Elizabeth’s coronation. Mary Stuart was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, and many Catholics consequently believed that this made her the rightful heir to both the English and Scottish thrones.
Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, a year after the death of her first husband, King Francis II of France. Scotland was by that time a country riven by religious divisions, with Protestants deeply suspicious of her Catholicism. In 1565 Mary married Henry Stuart, also known as Lord Darnley. He was another Catholic with a claim to the English throne, a fact that did not escape the attention of leading Scottish Protestants. He was killed two years later in suspicious circumstances.
One of Mary and Darnley’s leading opponents, Lord Bothwell, who had been tried but acquitted of Darnley’s murder, then kidnapped Mary. The two were subsequently married in Edinburgh in May 1567, just 12 days after Bothwell had divorced his first wife. But most Scots were appalled that Mary would marry the man who had been accused of murdering her first husband.
As a result, the Scottish aristocracy turned on Mary and Bothwell. She was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and compelled to abdicate. Bothwell, meanwhile, was sent into exile. Mary escaped her prison, however, and fled to England, seemingly thinking that Elizabeth would help her to win back the Scottish throne.
Mary’s apparent belief that Elizabeth would help her was a grave misjudgment. Although Elizabeth did make some efforts to negotiate with the Scots, they came to nothing. Then in 1586 Mary was implicated in plots against the English crown. She was subsequently accused of treason, found guilty and beheaded in February 1587. The executioner reportedly needed three blows to part her head from her body.
So in the late 16th century, a portrait of Mary could have been a dangerous thing to own, since she’d been beheaded as a traitor. And that may well explain why the portrait of Sir John Maitland was painted on top of the sketch of Mary, Queen of Scots. The artwork will remain on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 2020.