Calum Colvin: Jacobites by Name

Publication: The Times.    
December 2015

The title of this show, by artist Calum Colvin, is taken from a popular Whig anti-Jacobite song, later modified and some would say improved, by Robert Burns, around 1791. Rather like the visual works here, it offers multiple interpretations, nuances and a complex history.

There is nothing straightforward in the historical narratives which these works address and this is reflected in Colvin’s interpretation of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s Jacobite collection.  Jacobite, taken from the Latin Jacobus (James), refers to the political movement aimed at restoring the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

Colvin has reinterpreted various works in the collection using a variety means. His signature technique is to construct a ‘set’ comprising three-dimensional objects, photographs and other imagery, which he then paints, using various trompe l’oeiltechniques. The entire assemblage is then photographed and, in an additional layer of mediation, digitally manipulated. It is these finished photographs which are displayed, framed and glazed, amongst the historical collection.

The iconography of Jacobitism was often secretive and covert, a reflection of the fact that its supporters were viewed as traitors by the state. Portraits, mottos and other imagery was often found sewn inside articles of clothing or fans, or painted on box lids.

Here, Colvin alludes to these practices and also employs other methods such as anamorphosis ­­–  in this case, distorted imagery that is revealed through its reflection in a cylindrical mirror. 

‘Secret Portrait’ is based on an anamorphic image, made in 1745, of Charles Edward Stuart ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, (1720-88), son of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward Stuart and the Polish Princess, Maria Clementina Sobieska.

A second, lenticular, portrait of Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Lochaber No More’ (2012) is based on two contemporaneous images – one, an engraving by Johann Georg Wille from 1748 and the other, a painting, made almost 40 years later, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. As the angle of viewing changes, the younger Bonnie Prince Charlie morphs into the older and noticeably melancholy figure. The title of the piece comes from a popular Jacobite lament, the rendition of which caused the exiled Prince to weep.

There is great ingenuity in this show, not least in the way in which it is hung. Several of the works (including those from the collection) are placed high on the walls, precluding any careful examination. Some are interspersed with the permanent collection at a regular height, while still others are to be found hidden in a series of wall cabinets. These are not at all obvious and one suspects that a substantial portion of the viewing public will miss them. However, perhaps this is a risk worth taking, given the fact that it mirrors covert historical practices.

In many of the collection’s historical portraits and in those interpretations offered by Colvin, Charles Edward Stuart sports the insignia of the Order of the Garter. The motto reads ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ (dishonour on him who thinks ill of it). The Order, established in 1348, predates many dynasties and lines of succession in the English and British throne. Its pictorial and iconographic prominence here signals the strength of the perceived legitimacy of the Jacobites’ claim.

Colvin has assembled a complex and intriguing series of interventions which provoke historical and artistic re-assessment.

* ‘Jacobites by Name’ is shown in the context of the 300th anniversary of the 1715 Jacobite rising and is shown alongside ‘Rise and Fall: The Earl of Mar and the 1715 Jacobite Rising’ which examines the role of John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar, in the rebellion.