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Portrait of Flora MacDonald
National Portrait Gallery, London
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
Portrait of Flora MacDonald
1747 (undated)
Oil on canvas
117.4 x 94 cm
46 1/4 x 37 in.
NPG 5848
P17A
Flora MacDonald is shown dressed in a blue version of a Van Dyck costume, with a tartan bow at her chest. She sits three-quarter-length, full face, before a rocky promontory, with the Prince Charles Edward Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie' or 'The Young Pretender') and companions being rowed to safety against the sunset behind to the left. In her folded hands she holds a letter with a prominent seal.
Anon sale, Sotheby's 20 November 1985 (42); bt for National Portrait Gallery by Leggatt Brothers, 17 Duke Street St James's London SW1Y 6DB
Unsigned; no inscription
Flora MacDonald (1722-1790) was the daughter of a Hebrides farmer who helped Prince Charles Edward Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie') to reach the island of Skye after his defeat by the English forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. She was captured by H.M.S. Furnace on the Isle of Skye in July 1746 and was soon transferred to London and imprisoned in the Tower. Released in July 1747, she remained in London for almost a year, enjoying distinguished company through her hostess, Lady Primrose, including that of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in whose circle Wilson had patrons. Boswell, who introduced her to Samuel Johnson later in 1775, characterised her as 'a little woman of a genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well bred.'
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The present portrait and P17 probably date from the sitter's stay in London in 1747 with Lady Primrose, whom Flora recalled as insisting on her 'sitting to some of the first artists.' The vagueness of the setting, especially of the headland behind the sitter may lead to the supposition that the painting was never finished. Pearls, bow and sealed letter may all allude symbolically to her links with the Young Pretender, while the setting sun - a unique instance of this proto-Romantic phenomenon in Wilson's oeuvre - may indicate his fall from power and influence.
D. Saywell & J. Simon, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2004, p. 399; Solkin 1982, p. 146, n. 2
Wilson's friendship with Flora MacDonald's captor, Thomas Smith and his patrons from the circle of the Prince of Wales, probably account for this commission rather than any Jacobite sympathies. The patron in this instance remains unknown, though Croker, in his notes to Boswell's Life of Johnson, recorded that, in addition to the half-length presented to another captor, Nigel Gresley, a second portrait had been given to Smith. In view of Wilson's friendship with the latter such a commission remains a possibility.
In good condition overall, the painting has undergone no major recent conservation. The carved wood frame is later, probably early 19th century. It has been regilded.
Kate Lowry has noted:
Pale grey ground, plain weave canvas, turnover edges lost at time of glue-lining. Modern seven member stretcher dates from relining. Face is very well-finished over a dark grey underpaint in typical Wilson style, whilst her lace collar and cuffs and landscape are less finished, possibly even unfinished. Under UV there are minor retouches in the background and sitter's chest, but no major damages or repairs. Upon acquisition the work was surface-cleaned and more recently a small paint flake was consolidated in the sitter's cuff. Otherwise no further treatment has been carried out.