Marie R - Many Images of a Queen

August 2000

Publication: The Times

It has been suggested that Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, represents the icon of Euro-pean history.  Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine a more enduring mythology and martyrology than that which has grown up around Mary.  This show, which fea-tures the work of around forty prominent Scottish, English and French artists, is testi-mony to this enduring fascination with Mary as icon, martyr and historical figure.

Robert Maclaurin, however, offers a different perspective, quite literally, from most images of Mary.  For instead of looking at Mary, we are, in ‘Mary’s View’, invited to contemplate a scene from the monarch’s perspective.  But in the best tradition of ro-mantic painting this is, in fact, a metaphysical and psychological landscape. A low, winter sun casts blue-grey shadows from the trunks of leafless trees.  The view is seen from eye-level, suggesting a walk through this wood, just before the sun finally sets on a short day.  Perhaps Maclaurin is hinting at a life cut short, the fact of Mary’s impris-onment at the age of twenty-five and her captivity for a further nineteen years before her execution on 8 February, 1587  — in mid-winter. 

The link between Mary and John Knox and what they, respectively, represented is an im-portant and complex one.  Although an accomplished intellectual in her own right, Mary also represented part of the Catholic establishment which the Reformers so opposed.  Her appearance, with rosary, crucifix, and her love of art  stood in direct opposition to the austerity of intellectual energy behind Knox’s own beliefs..

This is a theme explored by the Reformer’s namesake, Jack Knox, whose ink drawing seems an apposite medium for ‘The Confrontation’  It shows the teenage queen, flat-chested, almost waif-like, and deferential to the authoritarian, bearded Knox who tow-ers above her. Both figures carry books, representing their widely divergent, but robustly European, intellectual traditions. She, a volume of ‘poesie’(she was consid-erably gifted in the art of writing) and he, the Bible. The inscription reads: “I fear that right knowledge have ye none.  But I have both read and heard.”

The impetus to explore new artistic territory has moved John Houston to include a hu-man presence in ‘Escape from Loch Leven’ which refers to Mary’s flight from Loch Leven castle in 1568. A furtive figure in a black cape, outlined against a blurred boat-like shape — which can also be read as aura or halo — adds significantly to this image of a lowering sky merging with the darkened water.  A hint of a bright dawn moves on the horizon, again suggesting the promise of a hope-filled future.

This idea of the boat is important and connects a number of episodes in Mary’s life — not only her landing at Leith, and the escape from Loch Leven, but also the island of Inchmahome on the Lake of Menteith.  Mary’s imprisonment on Loch Leven castle is also the subject of Frances Walker’s study. The castle, barely glimpsed through sheets of wintry rain, might have been Mary’s view, or the artist’s, seen from the M9 motor-way looking east, just south of Kinross.

This approach of linking place with historical association and resonance  has also been adopted by Renny Tait.  However, instead of choosing a place with direct links to Mary, Tait has opted to represent the house of the person now popularly regarded as Mary’s nemesis, Knox.  The house is recognisable as the present-day structure on the High Street in Edinburgh, but it is window-less, as if blinded, a soulless and expres-sionless edifice.  A portrait, by extension and association, of Scottish culture in gen-eral?

A number of the artists concentrate on the best known and most significant event of Mary’s life, the barbarity and cruelty of her death, under the executioner’s axe at Fotheringhay Castle, near Northampton. Will Maclean and John Bellany have both chosen to present reworkings of the scene. In ‘The Beheading’, for example, Bellany merges the personal with the historical.  While it contains elements of historical veracity — for example, Mary’s dog which cowered beneath her skirts during the execution — its simian rather than canine nature creates a tension with the known facts.  But this is personalisation and identification, rather than distortion. 

It is doubtful whether any of the images assembled here offer any new historical infor-mation, or analysis, of the events of Mary’s life and death.  That is not the function of the artist. They do however form a direct iconographic link with the past, and also function as indicators  of feeling, proving that the death, politicking, sex, treachery and confrontation which is so much part of  Mary’s story, remains inescapably attractive to contemporary artistic interpretation.

 

Marie R - Many Images of a Queen

Bourne Fine Art

6 Dundas St

Edinburgh

0131 557 4050

Until 26 Aug

 

Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 02-08-00