We all know Henry VIII as intelligent but cruel, Francis I as flamboyant, Catherine de Medici as shrewd and so on. Most 16 century personalities have fixed characters, at least so our high school text books and popular culture will tell us. But when it comes down to Mary Queen of Scots there seems to be no fixed agreement on her character. Some of us think her to be a frail weak creature who made a series of very doubtful decisions. Others portray her as a smart, stout woman with little luck and an impossible task. Some texts claim her to be as important as Elizabeth I or Catherine de Medici, while others point out how she never actually ruled and only gained significance because of her son James VI & I.
A tragic heroin or a poor martyr, whatever you might think of her, she has inspired many writers, painters and other artists to tell some (their) version of Mary’s life-story. In fact: in an article he wrote on the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots in 1845(!) Patrik Fraser Tytler remarks that there are many portraits of Mary to be found in households scattered all over the country. However, he also notices that there are so many differences in features, that one can never discern who actually looks like the real Mary. He states that: ‘her pictures contradict the profile upon her coins. – her coins throw discredit on her pictures; and both are contradicted by the features of her monument in Westminster abbey.’
So, taken all that into account: where can we find the true image of Mary Queen of Scots?
There are but a few paintings that have been crafted during Mary’s life that still exist today. Most are copies of originals, copies of copies or mere approaches to descriptions or hearsay. The most beautiful of those to my personal opinion is the famous portrait of Mary in mourning, with a white veil covering her hair. It was painted around 1561 and is most probably a copy of a painting by the great French court painter Francois Clouet. You can find it at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. However, if you have a fortune to spend, you can by your own copy. For details, have a look at the website of Philip Mould & Company who have been entrusted to sell it. And while you are there have a look at this (rather good) article which tells you a bit more about the paining and Mary.
Another work that was crafted during her life was recently discovered in 2006. It shows Mary with a rather pointy nose and a feather on her bonnet. It was painted during her captivity which leads to the conclusion that it is probably a copy of an earlier work. If you like to know more about the discovery and restauration of this portrait have a look at this wonderful article. The painting can be found at the National Gallery in London.
The only portrait Mary actually posed for in real life known today can also be found at the National Gallary in London. It is a painting by Hilliard and shows Mary as the staunch Catholic Queen. The inscriptions date 1578 and mention her imprisoned in the past 10 years.
There is one more painting of Mary Queen of Scots that I feel should be included here. Two miniatures in fact, both painted by Clouet. It shows Mary at the age of 17 at court in France. It is a lovely image of a young girl not yet tainted by lives events. One of them can be found at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, the other one is currently in the Royal Collection Trust and unfortunately not on display.
Hazel coloured eyes, a long oval face, a pointy nose either strait or slightly bended and small perched lips seem to be the traits of Mary Queen of Scots that seem to be consistent in all portraits mentioned above. If you want to see them London is the place to be, but you might just run into a good copy anyplace, anywhere.