Revealing Ham House’s hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots

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Specialists have long been intrigued by a late 16th-century portrait in the collection at Ham House, near Richmond. Recently, Dr Caroline Rae, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, carried out technical analysis of the picture. She was hoping to glean a better understanding of how the picture was made, what materials were used, and with luck, who painted it and when.

What she wasn't expecting to discover was a ghostly image of woman, hidden beneath the paint surface, believed to be an unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. Learn more about this picture and the secrets it holds.

Uncertain attribution

For nearly 350 years, the portrait of Sir John Maitland of Thirlestane (1543-1595) hung in a dark corner, above a door, in the Long Gallery at Ham House. Maitland, now a somewhat forgotten figure, was once Lord Chancellor of Scotland under James VI. 

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, began researching this work in 2013. He was intrigued by the fact that the author of the portrait, painted when Maitland was the second-most powerful man in Scotland, was unknown.

Taylor’s research into the authorship of the portrait at Ham led him to several possible candidates. One of the most compelling was Adrian Vanson (active 1581-1602), a Dutch artist working in Scotland. However, efforts to firmly attribute the portrait to Vanson, or indeed to any other artist, were hampered by the presence of overpaint (paint applied later by restorers), thus obscuring distinguishing stylistic details or painterly techniques.

Technical help

In late 2016, the portrait left the Long Gallery at Ham House for the conservation lab at the Courtauld Institute of Art. There it was examined by Dr Caroline Rae, the Courtauld's Caroline Villers Research Fellow, who used cutting-edge technology – including X-radiography and infrared reflectography – to learn more about the materials and techniques used by the artist.

It was while using X-radiography (X-ray) that Dr Rae discovered a concealed, unfinished portrait of woman.

An X-ray view of Adrian Vanson’s Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane (1589) showing an underlying portrait of a woman
An X-ray view of Adrian Vanson’s Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane (1589) showing the portrait of a woman believed to be Mary, Queen of Scots

The X-ray revealed the presence of lead white (a white pigment that was commonly used throughout Europe at the time), depicting a woman’s face and the outline of a dress and hat beneath the upper layers of paint. Dr Rae was then able to trace the outline of a woman, whose appearance indicates she is likely to be Mary, Queen of Scots.

Who was Mary, Queen of Scots?

Mary Stuart, often called Mary, Queen of Scots was a fascinating and controversial figure. She reigned over Scotland, acceding to the throne when she was just 6 days old. She spent most of her early years in France where she married the Dauphin and was briefly queen consort of France.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) possibly by or after Rowland Lockey, 1578 / Hardwick Hall NT 1129104
Mary, Queen of Scots

She returned to Scotland as a widow in 1561. Four years later, she married her cousin, Lord Darnley. She was later implicated in Darnley's murder and was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567. She was held prisoner in Loch Leven Castle for nearly a year before fleeing to England, seeking protection from her cousin, Elizabeth I. Instead, Elizabeth had her arrested.

Throughout her imprisonment, Mary became the centre of Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth so that she could take the throne of England. After 19 years in captivity, Mary was charged and found guilty of taking part in a plot to kill Elizabeth.

Dangerous portraiture

Mary was ultimately beheaded in England in 1587 - two years before the inscribed date on the overlying portrait of Sir John Maitland. Her recent execution may be a reason why her portrait was covered over or abandoned by the artist.

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures of Sculpture, observes that the 'portrait of Sir John Maitland is an important picture in the National Trust collection, and the remarkable discovery of the unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots adds an exciting hidden dimension to it. It shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing.'

" The unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots ... shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing."
- David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture

A firm attribution

In addition to the unexpected discovery of the portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, the portrait of Maitland can now be firmly attributed to Adrian Vanson.

Dr Caroline Rae says: 'The discovery of this hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots is an exciting revelation, not only as it adds to our knowledge of 16th-century Marian portraiture and patterns of commission at the time, but as it aids in illuminating our understanding of Adrian Vanson, a Netherlandish émigré artist who came to Jacobean Scotland to seek a new life and quickly ascended to the status of Crown painter.'

The results of Dr Rae’s work – a collaborative research project with the National Galleries of Scotland – are revealed in a new display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Vanson's portrait of Maitland can be seen alongside the X-ray image.

Art and Analysis: Two Netherlandish painters working in Jacobean Scotland can be seen at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 26 January 2020.

Tracing the queen's likeness

Detail of Rembrandt's Self-portrait, wearing a feathered bonnet

What can X-radiography show us?

Technical analysis, including X-Radiography, allows us to look at a painting beyond what is visible at the surface. It allows us to delve deeper to see paint layers and to analyse the structure of a painting.

X-radiography penetrates through paint layers but is stopped by pigments containing heavy metals such as lead white. Lead white is the principal white pigment historically used in European oil painting.

Rembrandt at Buckland Abbey

Really Rembrandt

In 2014, 'Self-portrait, wearing a feathered Bonnet' at Buckland Abbey was scientifically verified as being genuinely the work of Rembrandt van Rijn.

It was the result of eight months of painstaking investigative work at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, where the picture underwent infra-red reflectography, pigment and medium analysis and X-radiography.