THE PROPERTY OF HIS GRACE THE DUKE OF MONTROSE
By Houbraken, in 1740, as by van Dyck
With the outbreak of civil war in England, Parliament sought military support from the covenanters, and following a doomed attempt to rally Scottish royalists in opposition Montrose joined the King at Oxford, where he was appointed Lieutenant-General for Scotland and given a royal commission to raise an army in the north. Crossing the border in secret and meeting up with a force of Irish levies and highlanders raised by the Earl of Antrim and led by Alaister MacDonald, between 1644 and 1645 Montrose led a startlingly successful campaign, inflicting a series of devastating victories over parliamentarian forces in the highlands, and, in the words of the military historian Sir John Fortescue, emerged as ‘perhaps the most brilliant natural military genius disclosed by the Civil War’.1 In the face of huge odds, and despite vastly superior enemy numbers, Montrose combined brilliant tactics and enormous daring to defeat the covenanters at Tibbermoure on 1st September 1644, and again at Aberdeen twelve days later. In 1645 he routed an army twice the size of his own under the Duke of Argyll at Inverlochy on 2nd February, defeated the covenanters again at Auldearn on 9th May, and broke their army a third time at Alford on 2nd July. A month later, at Kilsyth, in an astonishing display of military brilliance, he once again destroyed the massed Covenanter army under General Baillie and the Duke of Argyll, chasing their beleaguered forces all the way to the border and leaving him in effective control of Scotland. However Montrose’s spectacular success could not last forever and in September 1645, massively outnumbered and caught by surprise, he was finally defeated at Philiphaugh. Retreating to the Highlands he struggled to rebuild his army, but with the Royalist cause perilously close to defeat in England in the aftermath of the battle of Naseby, his efforts became increasingly futile. In July 1646 Montrose received orders from the King, now a captive of the Scottish Covenant army in England, to disband his men, and in September he sailed into exile.
In exile Montrose continued his support of the Royalist cause and an account of his deeds published in Latin in 1647 gained him a heroic international reputation. Roused to a vengeful fury by the execution of Charles I, in 1649, having been re-appointed Lieutenant-Governor and Captain-General of Scotland by the exiled Charles II, he dispatched a small force from Norway to the Orkneys, joining them with reinforcements in March 1650. Invading Scotland he pushed south through Caithness and Sutherland, but abandoned by his King and deserted by his army he was defeated at Carbisdale in April, captured, and handed over to the Covenanters. On 18th May 1650 he was led through the streets of Edinburgh in a cart to the Mercat Cross in Parliament Square where his body was hung, drawn and quartered. He died with dignity, finely dressed in a scarlet cloak. His head was placed on a spike and displayed from the Tolbooth, whilst his limbs were dispatched to Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen, where they were fixed to the cities’ gates. His dismembered body was buried in un-consecrated ground in the burgh muir, where under cover of darkness Lady Napier had his heart removed and the embalmed organ sent to his son and heir in the Netherlands.
A last service to the crown, Montrose’s death served as a potent symbol of determination and loyalty until death. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 his body parts were reassembled in Edinburgh and buried in the High Kirk of St Giles in an elaborate state ceremony in which fourteen noblemen carried the coffin. Montrose’s example would serve as an inspiration in later ages to generations of Jacobites, and to this day his legend is intimately bound with the lure and romance of the highlands.
This painting was almost certainly painted in Oxford, where the royal court had relocated following the commencement of hostilities with Parliament, between the crucial months of August 1643 and March 1644, whilst Montrose was there negotiating with the King for permission to raise an army in Scotland against the Covenanters. The composition is emblematic of the directness, individuality and personal force which characterise Dobson’s best portraits. The figure fills the canvas, lending a sense of immediacy and presence to the picture. In the upper left the statue of Minerva is balanced in the upper right by his helmet, symbolising the complementary qualities of wisdom and martial strength appropriate to the sitter’s status as a military commander. This use of classical statuary as an allusion to the sitter’s role in life is a device often found in Dobson’s work from the period, and can be seen to similar effect in his Portrait of Colonel Richard Neville (National Portrait Gallery, London), in which a relief of Mercury (swiftness) rousing Mars (war) can be seen behind the sitter, upper right (see fig. 2). This classical motif similarly features in Dobson’s Portrait of Sir Thomas Chicheley (Private Collection), which features a statue of a bare breasted female figure, probably Venus, as well as in his Portrait of an Unknown Naval Commander (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), in which a marble female figure with a globe, triangle and dividers, symbolising Navigation or Geography, is seen behind the sitter upper left (see fig. 1). The compositional and iconographic idea is something that is unprecedented in the work of Dobson’s predecessor, Sir Anthony van Dyck, and the disposition of the attributes in this picture, as well as the general composition, resemble Titian’s Portrait of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino (Uffizi Gallery, Florence), of which a replica or copy may have been in the collection of the Earl of Arundel during the artist’s lifetime (see. fig. 3).
The first native born artist of real significance in Britain, whom his contemporary John Aubrey called ‘the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred’,2 little is known about Dobson’s life or career. Believed to have received encouragement from Van Dyck before his death in 1641, almost all the known works by this enigmatic painter were executed at Oxford, where Dobson moved early in 1643 in search of Royal patronage. He probably received early patronage from the Prince of Wales and Prince Rupert, and both an etched portrait of him by Josias English, produced circa 1650, and the title of a (now lost) poem dedicated to him by Thomas Rawlins suggest that he was appointed Sergeant-Painter to the King and a Groom of the Privy Chamber. The unusual format of some of his pictures, as well as the deteriorating quality of the materials in some of his later portraits and the fact that only one preparatory drawing is attributed to him, are all indications of the exigencies of working in a besieged city, at a time of extreme national strife. His premature death, shortly after the fall of Oxford in 1646, cut short a flourishing and highly original career. Not until the emergence of William Hogarth, over half a century later, would an indigenous artist of such prodigious talent emerge in England.
1. Quoted in M. Hastings, Montrose, The King’s Champion, London 1977, p. 13.
2. A. Clark (ed.), ‘Brief Lives’, chiefly of Contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, Oxford 1898, vol. I, p. 78.
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