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1823 Scottish Identity, Performed and Portrayed

Just as the 1822 Summer Exhibition was coming to a close—on 15 August—George IV arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, a high point in the king’s well-orchestrated visit to Scotland, much of it planned by Sir Walter Scott. As it was the first time a reigning British monarch had visited Scotland since the visit of Charles I in 1641, the tour helped solidify a Unionist conception of Scottish identity premised upon an idealised, Romantic fusion of Highland and Lowland cultures.1 George IV himself wore a tartan kilt when he met with Highland landowners and leaders from Edinburgh. David Wilkie was commissioned to commemorate the king’s arrival at the palace, and by the next summer, in 1823, he had an initial plan in mind. Finishing the project stretched out for years, and the painting was finally shown at the Royal Academy only in 1830 (Fig. 1).2 And yet, more immediately, 1823 provides an interesting moment for thinking about the representation of Scotland at the Royal Academy, as mediated through the king’s visit.

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The king’s trip itself was pictured in a seascape exhibited that year by William John Huggins: The James Watt steam-packet towing the Royal George Yacht into Leith Roads, on His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland, in August 1822. The inclusion of the tugboat must have been remarkably modern, even as Huggins seems to have been uncertain quite what to do with it, content largely to let a smokestack denote the namesake of the Scottish inventor. George Watson, the first president of the Royal Scottish Academy, exhibited a Portrait of Sir Evan Murray MacGregor as he appeared at His Majesty’s Levee. The conventions for Watson’s painting, a standing figure in tartan with a dignified swagger, were already well established, in part thanks to the work of his fellow Scotsman, Sir Henry Raeburn, who had recently been knighted and appointed Royal Limner in Scotland to George IV.

A third painting from the 1823 exhibition relevant to George IV’s Scottish tour addresses head-on the staging of Scottish loyalty to the British monarch. Colvin Smith’s Portrait of Patrick Grant at Age 109 invokes the image of the Scottish soldier; though in place of the heroism of Scottish regiments fighting alongside the English in the recent Napoleonic Wars (or even the Seven Years’ War), the painting raises the spectre of Highland rebellion, stretching back to Culloden (Fig. 2). Grant purportedly fought alongside the Jacobites in 1745, and in 1822, he was introduced to George IV in Edinburgh as “His Majesty’s oldest enemy”.3 To underscore the new spirit of reconciliation, the king extended a state pension to Grant and his daughter.

As viewers would have read in the catalogue:

73. The Veteran of Culloden, Patrick Grant, aged 109. He was a serjeant-major in the Highland army in 1745, and one of those who escaped over the walls of Carlisle, to fight among his native mountains. His Majesty recently granted him a pension of fifty guineas per annum, with remainder to his daughter. He is now living in good health in a cottage on the estate of the Hon. William Maule of Panmure, M.P.

The sitter is swathed in plaid, including tartan trousers, with a crucifix around his neck, a sporran in his lap, and hands rested on the hilt of his sword. While he hardly looks to be 109, he radiates thoughtful, measured composure, reflection rather than action. It is a remarkably sympathetic portrait. From the context of 1823, distant history was weirdly made present, though also disarmed and tamed by the ensuing decades. The picture works as a portrait to be sure, but it also serves as a kind of history painting. More precisely, history is here acknowledged as consequential for the present, as the past is brought into the present, with Grant’s disarmingly long life joining the two eras.

Tartan conveys a range of nuanced meanings.4 From resistance, to prescribed loyalty, to constructed conceptions of a mythical national identity, the potential for signification comes full circle. Grant’s dress vouches for the origins of Scottish identity in Highland rebellion, even as it entirely validates Unionist ideals of cohesion—a point echoed in a contemporary account of the event from The Cabinet of Curiosities, which states that Grant “fought with all the energy of a Highlander?”, before quickly assuring readers that “time and experience have corrected his views”.5 A letter to Smith from William Maule, who apparently commissioned the portrait, sheds light on the sitter’s clothing:

I have no doubt you have made a good picture of the veteran of Culloden, you did quite right in ordering him a suit of clothes. I hope you have been particular as to his costume in the Highland garb, etc.6

In short, Grant’s clothes for the portrait were as carefully orchestrated as those worn by George IV, belonging to the age of Scott and Wilkie rather than the 1740s. The aged veteran became a perfect bit of living, if highly mediated, history on the king’s itinerary—and in the galleries of the Summer Exhibition.

  1. John Prebble, The King’s Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, 1822 (London: Harper Collins, 1988);  and Stuart Kelly, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010). For the intersections of history and myth around questions of Scottish identity (and the fusion of the Highlands and Lowlands), see Neil Davidson, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); and Colvin Kidd and James Coleman, “Mythical Scotland”, in T.M. Devine and Jenny Wormald (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 62–77. With this essay, I suggest that we might also attend to the ways artists, too, helped construct a Scottish past and its attendant heightened national consciousness.↩︎

  2. George IV Received by the Nobles and People of Scotland (RCIN 401187), Deborah Clarke and Vanessa Remington, Scottish Artists, 1750–1900: From Caledonia to the Continent (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2015), 78–79. The commission came on the heels of Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, which had been immensely popular at the 1822 RA Summer Exhibition. See also Lindsay Errington, Tribute to Wilkie (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1985); and Nicholas Tromans, David Wilkie: The People’s Painter (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).↩︎

  3. Andrew Jervise, History and Tradition of the Land of the Lindsays in Angus and Mearns with Notices of Ayth and Meigle (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1882), 132.↩︎

  4. For tartan generally, see Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 15–41; Jonathan Faiers, Tartan (London: Berg, 2008); and Viccy Coltman, “Party-Coloured Plaid? Portraits of Eighteenth-Century Scots in Tartan”, Textile History 41 (2010): 182–216.↩︎

  5. Narratives of Grant’s audience with the king played out Unionist ideals, as seen in this account “Anecdotes of Longevity: The Highland Patriarch”, in The Cabinet of Curiosities, Or Wonder of the World Displayed; Forming a Repository of Whatever is Remarkable in the Regions of Nature and Art, Extraordinary Events, Eccentric Biography, & (London, 1824), 140–141.↩︎

  6. Robert Curzon Mollison Colvin Smith, The Life and Works of Colvin Smith, RSA 1796–1875 (Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen Press, 1939), 59, quoted in James Holloway, “Images and Identity: The Cultural Context of Portraits”, in J.M. Fladmark (ed.), Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 163–172. The letter, dated 17 April 1822, also complicates the painting’s relationship to the king’s Scottish tour since it suggests that Smith began the portrait in the spring, months before the royal visit.↩︎

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Explore the 1823 catalogue