An icon of rebellion

Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Charles Edward Stuart

A few weeks back, I gave a talk at my local history club on the topic of Jacobite material culture. It’s always valuable experience to practise preparing talks and public speaking when you can and a friendly environment is invaluable for this. It also forces me to look a little deeper into topics that grab my interest, something which I can skip all too easily these days. Typically, it tends to be the objects and collections I get to work with that spark a talk in my head and this one was no exception, starring a rather wonderful piece by Allan Ramsay which was recently donated to the Portrait Gallery, after its rediscovery in 2014.


Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, on display in Room 4 of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

At around about 12 x 10 inches in size, it’s pretty small, particularly for a Ramsay. When you hear his name, you tend to think of the imposing full length state portraits of George III, or his elegant three quarter formats of Enlightenment figures. However, what this work lacks in size, it more than makes up for in artistic quality and historic significance thanks to the combination of artist and sitter.

Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is one of the most recognisable figures in the history of Scotland. Regarded as the epitome of the Scottish romantic, tragic figure (second perhaps to Mary, Queen of Scots) he can today be found on many a shortbread tin or tea towel on the streets of the capital. The face you typically see in these situations tends to be provided from either a Victorian history painting, dripping with sentiment and dry of character (for instance, this 1890’s work in the Royal Collection) or the portrait of Charles as a young boy by Antonio David, shown below.


Prince Charles Edward Stuart,studio of Antonio David, circa 1729 Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Unlike these examples, the Ramsay portrait now gives us an image of a man at the height of his power. Far from being the romantic failure he is viewed as today you come face-to-face with Charles as the confident, self-assured leader of a revolutionary movement; presenting a very genuine threat to the power of the Hanoverian dynasty in Britain.

A Plan Comes Together: The Progress of the ‘45

It was late 1745 and the Jacobites had seized the upper hand. Marching across Scotland and into Edinburgh on September 17th with little opposition, Charles had set himself up in the palace of Holyroodhouse where his Stuart ancestors had once resided. This was followed by a stunning victory a few days later on September 21st at the battle of Prestonpans. The government forces, expecting a disorganised and therefore easy opponent were thoroughly routed. An astounding victory for Charles, it was a disaster for the Hanoverians with their only standing force in the north rendered useless. This victory was celebrated in print and in song. For instance, the popular Scottish Song, Hey Johnnie Cope is an account of the battle from the Jacobite view, including an account of Cope’s alleged running away from the battle. Many works of the time, such as the print below continued to lampoon Cope’s ability and character and despite being later cleared at court-martial, the perception seemed to stick.


A Race from Prestonpans to Berwick. Blaikie Collection, National Library of Scotland/Scottish National Portrait Gallery

With the majority of Scotland now under effective Jacobite control (Edinburgh castle being one notable exception, managing to hold out) the next logical step was the invasion of England. The Jacobite army, now newly invigorated after the success of Prestonpans must have felt unstoppable. The ultimate goal was finally within Charles’s sights and a vote to move south was passed on October 30th.

While military successes play a valuable part in any invasion or rebellion, the Jacobites also understood the value of winning the hearts and minds by gentler means. Visual and material culture had been embraced as one way to achieve this, as well as allow people to express their devotion to the cause. This ranged from medals and prints to jewellery and glassware, with the depiction of likenesses of the exiled Stuarts playing a key part within this material culture. Classical imagery was one setting that Charles and his father would be placed within objects, such as this fan from the collections of the V&A.


Folding fan with a printed design showing Prince Charles Edward Stuart, supported by Mars and Minerva. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Therefore, a new print of the Jacobite prince who would soon take the throne back was called for before the next stage of the campaign. With a talented engraver on side in the form of Robert Strange all that was needed was a likeness of Charles to be taken. Fortunately for him, the perfect man for the job happened to be in town.

The Prince and the Painter

At the age of 32, Allan Ramsay was fast approaching the top of his game. He had shown a talent for draughtsmanship from an early age (a portrait drawing of his father, made at the age of fifteen is a prime example of this talent) and was able to study in Edinburgh and London, thanks to the support of patrons that had been cultivated by his father.

He was able to travel to Italy from 1736-38 to further these studies, developing many of his signature techniques in the studio of Francesco Imperali and working alongside artists including Pompeo Batoni, whose Grand Tourist portraits can be found in galleries and country houses across Britain. Returning to London, he set up his portrait practice in Covent Garden and within the year had established a dominance over the market, writing in a letter from 1740:

“I have put all your Van Loos and Soldis, and Ruscas to flight and now play the first fiddle my Self”.


Self Portrait, Allan Ramsay 1739. © National Portrait Gallery, London

In addition to his practise in London, Ramsay continued to visit Scotland to visit his family and undertake commissions from his Scottish patrons. In 1745 he had come to Edinburgh to paint Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll, a long-time and highly influential patron since Ramsay’s early days in Edinburgh. However with the Jacobite invasion in progress the sitting was delayed. Never one to be idle, Ramsay undertook a number of commissions during his stay in Edinburgh from Jacobites and Hanoverians alike.

We also know that Charles would have been aware of the young artists ability, as Ramsay had been presented to the Jacobite court at Rome and attended the Prince’s birthday celebrations in December 1736. Furthermore, evidence exists which shows Ramsay’s Jacobite affiliations may have run deeper in Italy, as a member of a masonic lodge with overt pro-Stuart sympathies. He therefore was the ideal choice for the commission and in October, Ramsay was presented with the following note:

“Sir, you are desired to come to the Palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’ picture. So I expect you’ll wait no further call. I am, your most humble servant, John Stuart, Holyrood House 26th of October 1745”.

We now know that he complied with the request, to our benefit 271 years on.

“A Very British Monarch”: The Portrait Up Close

The work produced in response to that summons is a spectacular example of Ramsay’s technical brilliance and insight into his sitters. His trademark red underpainting around the face is present, helping to bring a degree of life into the portrait. The plain dark background forces the viewer to focus on the prince, a self-assured and confident young prince on the cusp of restoration to his rightful place.


Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Allan Ramsay 1745. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Interestingly though, there is very little that is Scottish about this picture. Charles wears the Order of the Garter, but not the Thistle. There is not a piece of tartan or a single white cockade in the frame, replaced with a luxuriant grey velvet jacket trimmed with rather swanky silver lace (photographs of the portrait don’t really do the lace detail justice, but it’s still worth pointing out). It’s very pretty, but very generic, especially for a prince at the head of Highland clans, no?

As a propaganda piece this was particularly important for this stage of the campaign as Charles needed to present himself as a true British prince and not as the head of a Scottish invasion (the impression that a large force of Highlanders may very well have presented if you think about it). Therefore, any Scottish references were kept out, in order that the portrait would best serve its intended purpose; helping to persuade people from all backgrounds to join his cause.


Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Sir Robert Strange. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

The print made by Robert Strange is a fine piece of propaganda, using imagery of classical heroism such as the gorgon headed aegis and the inscription “Everso Missus Succurrere Seclo” prominently placed below the prince’s portrait. Translating roughly to “sent to repair the ruins of the age” it leaves the viewer in little doubt of who the subject really is. Charles is the long awaited hero, sent by god to rescue the kingdom from the usurping Hanoverian dynasty and bring about a second Stuart restoration.

This glorious vision was however, not meant to be. The Jacobite forces got as far as Derby before deciding to turn around, believing a large Hanoverian force lay between them and London, only 100 miles further south. On the back foot now, they continued to fight the forces now chasing them but ultimately they were essentially wiped out in 1746 on Culloden Moor.

Charles barely managed to escape, having to be disguised by Flora MacDonald to escape from Benbecula to Skye, disguised as Flora’s maid Betty Burke. Returning to Europe, the cause was by this point effectively abandoned, despite a secret visit to London made in 1750 to scope out a possible invasion. Spending the rest of his life as an exile, Charles descended into life as an alcoholic and philanderer, including a particularly scandalous affair with his own cousin. Later images of Charles show us this broken man who has let himself go; the prior confidence and self-assuredness consigned to the dustbin of history.


Charles Edward Stuart, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, circa 1785, © National Portrait Gallery, London

It is a sad image to behold and up until now, we have only really had the two extremes of Antonio David’s young boy and this sad old man to view the real Charles from. It is wonderful therefore that at last a work that gives us the prince in his prime by such an iconic Scottish artist has come to light and that it now sits amongst pride of place in the national collection.