Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Painted Past: MQS!

Blimey, where to start?  Unlike yesterday’s quite straightforward infanticide, this is a right old mess because I have to admit Mary, Queen of Scots had a hell of a life. Murder, treachery, death, a bit more murder, explosions and some more murder on top of that, followed by a beheading.  To the Victorians, she presented an interesting model of womanhood: was she a beautiful and accomplished victim or a scheming and treacherous  murderess?  Who knows, but it makes great pictures.

Well, we have to start somewhere...William Allen chose the murder of Mary’s friend and attendant David Rizzio as a suitable dramatic subject.

The Murder of David Rizzio (1833) Sir William Allen
 The light dances across the canvas, highlighting the innocent and shadowing the guilty.  From the white cloth and rosary on the left, our eyes are drawn to Mary then down to the unfortunate Rizzio, who isn’t long for this world.  The murderers seem to mass from the darkness filling the canvas on the right, which is so overfilled with people compared to the left.  It is like a stage set from a tragedy, quite proscenium arch and traditional, when compared to John Opie’s work on the same subject from 1787.

Murder of Rizzio (1787) John Opie
 I have to admit to preferring the tightness of Opie’s scene, with Mary close enough to touch Rizzio and his murderer.  She also looks likes she putting up a more decent fight in Opie’s scene and it is taking two men to restrain her.  Good girl.

It would be easy to surmise that Mary had a two-note life from what is famous in paintings, but a whole swathe of pictures of her everyday life were produced in Victorian times as we enter a period which can be call ‘The perfection of Mary, Queen of Scots’.

A Love Duet Mary, Queen of Scots and Darnley at Hollyrood Frederick William Hayes

Well, hey nonny nonny, what have we here?  Just a paragraph before, she was watching her beloved friend being separated from his insides all over the floor of her bedroom and now she’s getting all musical with Lord Darnley, who despite his white tights, was pretty fabulous. Until he murdered her best friend, obviously.  Nice legs though.

In this cloying and a little bit sickly portrayal of Tudor lovin’ we see the rehabilitation of Mary’s reputation, that she wanted to become more than just the eternal brutalised victim.  This picture gives the impression of two happy young lovers, which undoubtedly they were for a while, but it is arguably not a fair depiction of a man who was so vile they had to blow him up to get rid of him.  Yes, blow him up.  For heaven’s sake, he’s not the Hulk.

Unsurprisingly, another scene of Mary’s life that became popular was John ‘Opportunity’ Knox upbraiding (what a fabulous word) Mary for being too, well, too catholic.
John Knox Reproving Mary, Queen of Scots (1844) William Powell Frith
John Knox Admonishing Mary Queen of Scots (1829) William Allen
I love that her expression seems to say ‘Just make him shut up!’  These are just two, if you Google Knox and Mary you get a whole carnival of ‘Stroppy teenage girl being told off by Dad’ pictures, even one in stained glass.  For the Victorians, these fit nicely into a tradition of patriarchal ‘guidance’ in the face of female folly.  Knox listed Mary’s crimes as liking dancing and fashion too much, or in fact, at all.  Oh Mary, you are bad to the bone.

All well and good, but here’s the meat.  We all know one thing about Mary, Queen of Scots, and that is her beheading.  When I went to Nottingham Castle as a much younger lady, I remember this painting very clearly indeed.

Mary Queen of Scots Being Led to Execution (1871) Laslett John Pott
It’s not very obvious that she is off to her death, it could just be the Queen walking down some steps, but there is something in her expression, so pale and resigned, and the bow of her companion’s head that lets you know that all is not well in this picture.  The figures at the top of the stair seem to be a dark cloud above her and the black swathing of fabric down the stairs screams of death, imminent and unpleasant.  Her white veil gives a hint of possibly her innocence, together with that rather saintly shaft of light that is striking her, and beneath her black dress peeps the red clothes of a martyr.  It is a very dignified image of a woman going to her death, without the titillation you’d dread and expect from such a scene of violence.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1867) Robert Herdman
 Well, my goodness, that is very regal, look how she sales through to the chopping block.  Again, black dress, white veil and the hint of red, as if that was her uniform, and it is all very dignified and with the correct amount of respect such a traumatic and sad event should muster.  Well done, Victorian artists, I’m proud of you.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1840) Ford Madox Brown
 Alright, we might be taking 'dignified' a little too far now, she’s beginning to look a little like Hattie Jacques, which I’m not saying is a bad thing.  I think she is shushing her ladies in waiting, which seems a little tame against their wailing and fainting, but off she goes to the block, neck ready.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1861) Abel de Pujol
Oh well, it couldn’t last.   I love the fact that Mary is concerned that her breasts are about to pop out of her dress, when to be honest, that is the least of her troubles.  It is good to know she had a comfy cushion to lean on, even though she is at a funny angle for the headsman.  Well, it’s her funeral.

Mary is an unlikely Victorian heroine in many ways: Catholic, cousin-marrying, treason-lovin’ and party to murder.  However, she had qualities that they loved.  She was pious, she is never without her rosary and her bible.  She was beautiful, with a fine head of auburn hair.  The story of how, when the headsman lifted her severed head up after the execution and all he got was her wig smells awfully like propaganda to me, but then equally it could be seen that Mary’s beauty was emphasised in the face of Elizabeth the First’s perceived lack of it.  Her images jar against each other: in pictures of her adventures and tragedies up to her imprisonment, she is a young, beautiful woman, but then she emerges from her cell, walking to her death as a middle aged woman.  Solemn dignity obviously is beyond the grasp of the victim shown in the other pictures, or maybe painters just wanted to show Mary as a 45 year old woman, which she was on the day she died.

Maybe it boils down to the more sordid moments of her life play better with a saucy young woman being the victim, but when it comes to the fact of execution, the solemnity and horror of a woman, a Queen, having her head sliced from her body, then there is nothing titillating about that and should be treated with realism and respect. 

Or should it?  I’ll see you tomorrow for Lady Jane Grey…

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