Exhibition: Blazing with Crimson – Tartan Portraits

Scottish National Portrit Gallery – until 31st December 2013

Highland dress and tartan fabric are universally recognised signs of Scotland and Scottish identity. This display explores what these distinctive garments and this highly recognisable textile meant to six different people who were painted between 1680 and 1780.

At first associated specifically with the Gaelic north and west of the nation, in particular with the flowering there of an elite warrior culture, the ‘Highland habit’ was subsequently used to convey various and sometimes conflicting messages. Highland dress was adopted by the Hanoverian army as it struggled to impose authority within Scotland, and the kilted soldier soon became a powerful symbol of the wider British Empire.

In the nineteenth century British kings and queens led an obsession with Highland costume.  Commerce combined with nostalgic scholarship to create a proliferation of different tartans linked to specific clans.

What most of our images have in common is a sense that the sitters, even when far from home, enjoyed the opportunities for display afforded by their dress. The artists appear to have been equally entranced by the visual appeal of bright colour and bold pattern, ample drapery and picturesque accessories.

In the aftermath of the Jacobites’ final defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746 the wearing of Highland dress (except for government army uniform) was banned in Scotland. This Act was repealed in 1782 and the peaceful visit of King George IV to Scotland forty years later heralded a new era.

No longer a symbol of dissent, Highland dress had also ceased to be everyday wear for ordinary folk or a fashion statement made by a culturally and geographically distinct elite.  Instead, it began to signify Scotland as a whole. The royal visit of 1822 was stage-managed by the writer, Sir Walter Scott, who encouraged all the participants, wherever they came from, to wear tartan.

Evidence of a growing romantic interest in traditional Highland culture can also be seen in the lives and work of the fabulous Sobieski Stuart brothers, the supposed grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Their sumptuous publications claimed an ancient pedigree for clan tartans.

Queen Victoria’s long love affair with Scotland began in 1842, and her influence can be seen in the proliferation of tartan outfits for women and children as well as the popularity of shooting parties, accompanied by stalkers and pipers attired in full Highland costume.

Some of the smaller pictures in the display illustrate some of these changes. In particular, the early photographs, remarkable for their vivid recording of reality, convey a sense that the very act of posing encouraged sitters to display their tartan finery.

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