Portrait of Flora MacDonald

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Portrait of Flora MacDonald
Portrait of Flora MacDonald
Portrait of Flora MacDonald
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
title=Credit line
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
Portrait of Flora MacDonald
Oil on canvas
Metric: 76.4 x 58.6 cm
Imperial: 30 1/8 x 23 1/8 in.
Accession Number
PG 1162
Wilson Online Reference
Flora MacDonald is depicted bust-length and full face within a fictive oval frame. She wears a tartan dress with slashed sleeves and fronted by silver ribbons, surmounted by a white fabric necklet.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Women in Scotland, 1660-1870, 1979 (58); London, Cardiff and New Haven, 1982-83 (4)
Seemingly commissioned by the sitter and given to Captain Sir Nigel Gresley RN; by descent in the Gresley family, Drakelowe Park, near Burton-on-Trent Staffordshire; Hampton & Sons 16 July 1931 (845); bt by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Signed and dated mid-left: R.Wilson f. | 1747
Techniques and materials
A grey ground is revealed along the base of the picture and in the slash of the left sleeve. The hair is subtly integrated at the left with some pentimenti, as well as in the foreground, although it is rather ill-defined further back. The forehead has a smooth, eggy impastoed finish. A sharp light is falling from the front upper left, detectable in the glint of the eye and shadow of the nose and eye-lashes. The shadow is also falling to the right in the fictive oval. The bust is thinly painted and relatively unmodelled. The neck is also thinly painted, although the diagonal shadow enhancing the modelling is noteable. The collar is also roughly painted with a non-finito appearance. A horizontal mark at the lower left of the fictive frame is illegible and unlikely to have been intended as construable. There is a costume pentimento behind the right shoulder.
Verso inscriptions
[1] On the stretcher in ink: This portrait of Flora Macdonald was given by herself to Sir Nigel Gresley | Captain in the Royal Navy who captured her in her flight from Scotland to France | & from whom she experienced every civility & as a mark of gratitude presented him | with this picture 1747.
Flora MacDonald (1722-1790) helped Prince Charles Edward Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie') to escape from Scotland after his defeat by the English army at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. She was captured by HMS Furnace on the island of Skye, 12 July 1746; She was transferred to HMS Eltham on 7 August 1746, to HMS Bridgewater on 21 September 1746 and to HMS Royal Sovereign at the Nore in December 1746. The Captain of HMS Bridgewater was Commodore Thomas Smith, a friend and patron of Wilson. Having been imprisoned in the Tower of London she was liberated by the Act of Indemnity on 4 July 1747 and became something of a celebrity in London society, enjoying the company, for example, of Frederick, Prince of Wales. She was painted by Wilson shortly afterwards. It is tempting to interpret her tartan costume as a political statement of some kind in view of her role in the 1745 uprising and the banning of tartan in 1745, though her family were Hanoverian supporters.
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Related Works by Other Artists
[1] Allan Ramsay, Portrait of Flora MacDonald,1749, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (WA1960.76)
[2] William Robertson, Portrait of Flora Macdonald, 1750, Glasgow Museums
Critical commentary
This is a sympathetic portrait. The face is nicely rounded and the lips dimpled. The bows are fluently handled, apart from that at the lower left, which is awkward. As observed by Brian Allen, the bust-length portrait set in an oval was Wilson's favourite compositional formula in the late 1740s, when he appears to have been most active as a portraitist (Solkin 1982, p. 146). The basic type would seem to derive from Hogarth or Ramsay.
Connoisseur, vol. 89, no. 370, 1932, p. 413; WGC, p. 152, pl. 3c; Solkin 1982, pp. 145-46
Link to WG Constable Archive Record
More Information
Flora later married a local farmer, Allan MacDonald, and emigrated to North Carolina, where the MacDonalds were on the British side during the American War of Independence. Eventually she and her husband returned to Scotland, where she died.
There is a fine craquelure in the dark areas and pinpoint pustules on the forehead, no doubt the results of lead salts in the ground. The carved and gilded frame could be original.
Kate Lowry has noted: Simple weave linen, medium weight. Paste lined and stretched onto a four member stretcher with square mortice joints. Vection cracks visible at top and left hand edges indicate the position of the original stretcher bars. Pale grey ground extends beyond the paint at lower edge, indicating a commercial preparation. Small areas of ground also left exposed in neck and dress. The ground has developed a granular texture found in other early paintings by Wilson and this is especially visible in the face and upper background. Various vertical and diagonal systems of mature cracks indicate the positions of old damages to the ground/canvas at top and to right of head. No obvious damages or losses to paint. Probably lined and cleaned by H.Freeman, restorer at Rose & Crown Yard, London before being sold to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1931. There are areas of minute drying cracks in dark passages of paint towards lower edge. There is a pentiment on her left shoulder where the artist has painted out a rosette or ribbon. Face is painted lit from the left with strong shadow falling to the right, giving good modelling to the nose and the eyes.