Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Search for the Lost Portrait

After breaking many a Scottish heart by discovering that a much-loved portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie was, in fact, Charlie’s brother Henry, the Art Historian Bendor Grosvenor decided to make amends by going on a quest to seek out a true portrait of the Stuart Heir.

The Portrait long thought to be of Bonnie Prince Charlie

The famous portrait of... Henry

Although many portraits of him have survived, all are from periods and places unrelated to the time of his unsuccessful campaign to regain the throne for the Stuart line and Grosvenor could not even be sure that any were painted in the UK at that crucial time. But, he did know that portraiture would have been essential as a propaganda tool and that Charles would have been in Scotland for long enough to have sat for a portrait. Therefore, there was every chance that there was a long lost painting somewhere. The trick was finding it.

The search took him to the Highlands of Scotland, Edinburgh, Derby, the vaults of the National Portrait Gallery and, finally, back to Gosford House – a stone’s throw from Edinburgh. The first clue to a major breakthrough came in the form of a summons in the hand of Charles’s Valet and addressed to the renowned Scottish portrait Painter, Allan Ramsay, in October 1745.

If Ramsay had indeed responded to the summons and painted the portrait he was being commissioned with, the painting was going to be, undoubtedly, a masterpiece but, as he had gone on to be the court painter in the Georgian Court in London, was it possible that he declined as his allegiances lay elsewhere?

Allan Ramsey Self-Portrait

Self Portrait of Allan Ramsay

All the same, Ramsay was the only possibility to have turned up so far and so, now armed with at least the name of a possible painter, Grosvenor scoured the Ramsay archives and alighted upon a dog-eared black and white photograph of a portrait whose attribution was in some doubt and, therefore, had been long forgotten. Grosvenor, however, saw a quality in the painting and an animation in the sitter’s face that suggested a skilled hand making him sure he was looking at a Ramsay painting and a painting of the right man this time!

Bendor Grosvenor, Art Historian and Detective!

Bendor Grosvenor with the portrait of Charles Edward Stuart

Televised in a Culture Show Special screened last Saturday, it was a real delight to see, first, the excitement on the face of Grosvenor when he eventually saw the painting in the flesh and, then, the elation of the Ramsay expert, Dr Duncan Thompson, when the portrait was revealed to him. It was confirmed – Scotland had finally been reunited with their Bonnie Prince Charlie!

Bonnie Prince Charlie by Alla Ramsay

A close up of the portrait of Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – by Allan Ramsay

March 2015