Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites Back

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites’ begins with the mythic presentation of its subject in John Pettie’s 1892 portrait, Bonnie Prince Charlie Entering the Ballroom at Holyroodhouse. The image depicts its titular subject resplendently dressed in tartan, fabric favours strewn at his feet. Though it has its basis in fact—evoking Charles Edward Stuart’s short-lived court at Holyrood—the image more explicitly references Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley, depicting the moment when the Prince paused on the threshold of the ballroom, ‘dazzled at the liveliness and elegance of the scene now exhibited in the long-deserted halls of the Scottish palace’ (Waverley, Chapter XIV, ‘The Ball’). This complex relationship between fact and fiction, between representation and reality, is at the heart of any account of the ‘Young Pretender’, and accordingly the deliberate use of Pettie’s painting at the exhibition’s opening space suggests its own attempt to think through the facts and fictions of this fascinating political movement.

Despite this initial prominent appearance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he quickly disappears from the exhibition, only to reemerge at around its half way point. Instead, the first few rooms recount a history of the Stuart family and their dynastic struggle, before providing an account of the Stuarts’ unwavering belief in the doctrine of the divine right of Kings. The exhibition then moves to the Stuart family’s exile at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France. The objects included in these sections convey the opulence and luxury of the exiled court, thereby stressing how the Stuart family maintained status and continued to act in accordance with courtly practices of the time period. Other rooms recall the history of the movement’s various risings; the Stuart court at Rome; Charles’s ‘court’ at Holyrood Palace; details of key battles; Charles’s eventual flight following his loss at the Battle of Culloden; and the trials and pardons of Jacobite ‘conspirators’ such as Flora Macdonald. The later rooms of the exhibition contrast Charles’s eventual fall from grace with his brother Henry’s ascension to the status of Cardinal, playing on the dynamic of ‘heir and spare’ that is a narrative throughout the exhibition; before finally turning to Charles’s death in 1788. The final displays deal with some of the legacies of Jacobitism, focusing on the formation of later collections of Jacobite objects, and particularly their ironic acquisition by later generations of the Hanoverian royal family. These narratives are told through a diverse range of material objects, including helmets, chargers, paintings, textiles, dress, jewellery, and ceramics. 213 of these are drawn from the National Museum of Scotland’s own collections, with a further 112 on loan from both local collections such as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and those from farther afield. As such, the exhibition skilfully mixes iconic exhibits such as Charles’s silver canteen, famously lost at Culloden, with never-before-seen objects such as the York Chalice and Paten, lent from the Sacristy Museum in Rome.

Visually, the exhibition’s displays combine an evocative use of prints—reproduced on an unprecedentedly large scale—with flat areas of colour, contrasts between which are used to indicate the chronological and regional shifts in emphasis taken by the exhibition: for example, the family’s time spent at Saint-Germain is indicated by an appropriately Rococo blush pink. Curatorially, these colours do a good job of suggesting to the viewer how to tackle the exhibition, whose large size—indeed, it is the largest exhibition held on the subject for decades—and density of information and displays can often feel slightly overwhelming. The exhibition also makes interesting use of interactive displays; specially made films; and an inventive deployment of floor plans of relevant architectural spaces.

With so much to cover, some avenues are inevitably left underexplored. For example, the show includes many objects that might traditionally be gendered as female, such as fans, embroidery, and dresses, each of which were used to express support for the Jacobite movement. Yet the deeper significance of these objects, that is, what they mean for women’s political agency in a period before they could vote, is left unsaid. Other more marginal voices are also noticeably absent, with the exhibition almost exclusively focusing on elite and high cultural manifestations of Jacobitism. As such, the lives, experiences, and objects of lower-class Jacobites are conspicuous in their absence from the show, despite well-documented popular Jacobite support during this period.[1]

Perhaps the biggest issue however, is the exhibition’s apparent lack of engagement with the compelling and expansive historiography on Jacobite material culture, which has developed numerous sophisticated frameworks for discussing these objects. Essays such as Murray Pittock’s ‘‘Treacherous Objects: Towards a theory of Jacobite material culture’ have highlighted the importance of transformative objects that might variously reveal or conceal the political affinities of their owners; P. K. Monod’s book Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788 emphasised the significance of objects and images in Jacobitism through the idea of ‘look, love, and follow’; and Robin Nicholson’s essay on portraits of Charles Edward Stuart has demonstrated the dynamic ways in which the image of the Prince was reproduced and disseminated.[2] These contexts of transmutation and propaganda, of relics and icons, remain underdeveloped in the exhibition, despite their centrality in understanding how these objects functioned for those who owned, saw, and used them. The exhibition’s catalogue states its aim to ‘bring new perspectives to the the study of Jacobitism’, something it arguably achieves, particularly in Viccy Coltman’s compelling essay on approaches to the study of Jacobite material culture. Sadly, the exhibition itself seems to fall somewhat short of this ambition, ultimately providing a glittering display of beautiful artefacts, but failing to situate these in the broader cultural processes in which they were consumed and produced, and which ultimately made them central to the Jacobite movement.

George Dalgleish has written previously on how the National Museum of Scotland’s collection of objects belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie variously occupy the status of relics and icons, material representations of how Jacobitism became a ‘romantic lost cause’.[3] Fittingly, the show ends with a letter from Robert Burns regarding attending a dinner at the Stuart club, hinting towards this eventual process of Romanticisation. This would have been an apt opportunity to link back to the opening’s brief consideration of the Jacobite myth, as signalled by Pettie’s portrait. Indeed, it almost feels as if the exhibition is missing a room about the legacies of Jacobitism in the period following Charles’s death, perhaps examining his treatment by Scott, or the Stuarts’ co-option into the Romantic Highlandism promoted by the young Queen Victoria. With the exhibition self-consciously courting its connection with the popular historical drama Outlander and selling tins of shortbread with Charles Edward Stuart’s image in the Museum shop, these ideas clearly have continuing resonances.[4] At a time when ideas of Scottishness are being challenged, redefined, and renegotiated, a deconstruction of the mythic presentation of nationhood would have been particularly welcome.

Despite these various issues, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites’ is ultimately a fascinating exhibition. Information-rich, it tells the story of the Jacobite movement from its metaphorical birth to the literal death of Charles Edward Stuart, and does so through hundreds of intricately-made and beautiful objects, presented in dynamic and compelling ways.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until 12th November 2017. The catalogue is available here.

[1]M. Pittock, ‘The culture of Jacobitism’, J. Black (ed.), Culture and Society in Britain, 1660-1800, (Manchester, 1997), 124-145.

[2]M. Pittock, ‘Treacherous Objects: Towards a theory of Jacobite material culture’, Journal for eighteenth-century studies, 34.1 (2011), pp. 39-63; P. K. Monod, Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788 (Cambridge, 1989); R. Nicholson, ‘The tartan portraits of Prince Charles Edward Stuart: Identity and iconography’, British Journal for eighteenth-century studies, 21 (1998), pp. 145-160.

[3]G. Dalgleish, ‘Objects as icons: Myths and realities of Jacobite relics’, in J. M. Fladmark (ed.), Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (Shaftesbury, 2000), pp. 91-101.