13. Not Mary Queen of Scots, by an unknown artist

by Anna Clark – 15 October 2020
Anna Clark looks into the intriguing history of the portrait of an unknown lady, previously thought to be Mary Queen of Scots
Not Mary Queen of Scots.jpg Portrait of an Unknown Lady, unknown artist, H 34.3 x W 29.2 cm, oil on canvas

At first sight, this portrait appears to be a somewhat mysterious addition to the collection at St John's. The sitter, her identity unknown, peers at the viewer from the surrounding shadows. This painting is an early nineteenth-century copy of a portrait of an unknown woman in the Bodleian Picture Collection. However, when the painting appeared in a 1926 catalogue of the portraits at St John's, it was described as an image of Mary Queen of Scots. In this case of disputed identity, there remains no obvious connection to the College. Quick brush strokes and a thin paint layer expose the weave of the canvas beneath and the rough quality of the copy makes its acquisition as a significant work of art improbable.

My research looks at portraits of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women in a university context, and the curious presence of this painting in the St John's collection is an example of some of the more interesting challenges of studying these kinds of images. A closer look into its history reveals the intriguing story of this painting.

The panel portrait at the Bodleian, on which this canvas copy is based, dates to c.1610. The panel had shown a heavily overpainted image of Mary Queen of Scots with a more elaborate partlet and ruff and an additional veil. In 1838, picture restorer Simeon Collins revealed an entirely different painting by removing the uppermost paint layer. This discovery uncovered the image of a woman who could no longer be said to represent Mary Queen of Scots. The Bodleian has several images copied from the painting before its restoration, but the St John's version appears to be the only copy to reproduce the original underpainting. The Oxford Journal of 30 October 1841 indicates that Collins completed some restoration work for St John's College. Collins was also a painter and it is possible that this rough copy of the original Bodleian panel is the work of his own hand, perhaps given as a gift to the College as a result of his work there.

The St John's copy highlights the merits of the practice of copying for developing our understanding of the portraits in the University's collections. While the Bodleian copy is the original, and a more detailed and fluent painting, it has suffered damage and discolouration. The St John's copy is a rough sketch of the original. However, to researchers it has represented an alternative record of the painting's visual impact at the time of its restoration in 1838.

The relationship between the St John's unknown lady and the panel at the Bodleian also reveals the extent of the practice of overpainting, a common phenomenon for paintings of the age of the original panel. Sometimes overpainting was limited to changing details or adding inscriptions, which could have a significant effect on identification and attribution. However, this portrait demonstrates that complete overpainting could result in the representation of an entirely different individual. This raises the question of whether one paint layer should be considered more valid or original than another. The decision, sometime between c.1610 and 1838 to paint a popular style of portrait of Mary Queen of Scots over the unknown lady demonstrates her continuing prominence beyond the sixteenth century in which she lived. In its overpainted form, the portrait was given to the Bodleian by Alderman William Fletcher of Oxford in 1806 and was perhaps accepted to contribute to the University's growing collection of eminent figures, including several sets of portraits of royalty. It is striking to me that, now that the portrait has been restored, a different, currently unknown, woman is commemorated in the Bodleian collection. The privileging of the underlying image, considered more authentic by nineteenth-century picture restorers and antiquarians, has led to the commemoration of a seventeenth-century woman, who may have had no connection to the university, in an institutional space where female involvement was profoundly limited at the time in which she lived.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Anna ClarkAnna Clark is a second year DPhil student at St John's College. She works in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery researching the histories and afterlives of portraits of early modern female patrons in Oxford and Cambridge Colleges.