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Exhibition Review: Mary, Queen of Scots, National Museum of Scotland

Mary, Queen of Scots, National Museum of Scotland, 28th June – 17th November 2013.

Reviewed by Jordan Mearns


[1] Few figures loom so large in Scottish historical consciousness as Mary, Queen of Scots. Her life has been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, controversy and contestation, and her tumultuous reign has proven a deeply alluring source of imaginative interest, inspiring artists, playwrights, poets and novelists. Suspended somewhere between the poles of history and fiction, Mary Stuart remains both a crowd-pleaser and an enigma. The National Museums of Scotland have capitalized on Mary’s broad and enduring appeal by staging a major exhibition of her life to coincide with the influx of international visitors to the Edinburgh International Festival. The exhibition comprises jewels, letters, portraits, coins and documents, 211 of which are tersely considered in the slim but informative accompanying catalogue, and many of which have been brought together for the first time. Despite the richness of the line-up, at times, the exhibition suffers from being liberally peppered with bizarre and inexplicable objects, which bear little tangible relation to the Scottish Queen and muddy the waters for the exhibition-goer. Amongst such incongruous inclusions are an – albeit spectacular – late fifteenth-century Peruvian gold beaker and a series of gaudy contemporary figurines dressed in carnivalesque Tudor costume, representing key historical figures associated with Mary’s reign. Despite Mary’s historical iconicity, notoriously few authentic portraits of her exist in a sea of spurious copies, fabrications and willfully misattributed examples. In a seeming attempt to compensate for this lack, the exhibition prominently showcases a 3-D recreation of Mary’s features based on a series of extant portraits, which attempts to offer a realistic insight into her appearance. Such an enterprise, however, does not take into account either the physiognomic unreliability of even the best sixteenth century portraits, nor the clear disparity between the existing authentic depictions of Mary. This showy inclusion distracts from the complex narrative of Mary’s life and reign and misleads in its claims to authenticity.

[2] The narrative of the exhibition is chronologically structured, with weight evenly distributed over key periods of Mary’s life: her childhood and youth at the French court; return to Scotland; marriages, increasingly disastrous, to Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell; downfall; captivity and eventual execution. The most beguiling objects in the earlier part of the exhibition include a series of enamel portraits from the French court, including those of Mary’s uncle François of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. François Clouet’s famous watercolour of a youthful Mary dressed in red, symbolically placing a ring on her finger is a welcome addition to the lineup. Later in the exhibition an inventory of books, ornaments and masquing clothes belonging to the Queen – which offers a direct and unmediated insight into the material splendour of Mary’s court – gives an idea of the court culture Mary imported from France, despite the paucity of surviving objects. The exhibition devotes considerable attention to one of the most contentious, complex and enigmatic junctures of Mary’s reign: the murder at Kirk O’ Fields of her second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley in 1567. Both the Earl of Bothwell, and Mary herself were implicated in Darnley’s ignominious slaughter, and this section of the exhibition features the contemporary diagram of the scene, alongside a gripping interpretative video. Finally the exhibition focuses on Mary’s flight into England, her captivity, trial and eventual execution. The famous ink and pencil sketch of Mary’s trial and the complex sketch and written account of Mary’s execution by Robert Wingfield are poignant and tantalizing visual and textual evocations of the Queen’s spectacular downfall.

[3] The exhibition draws to a swift close with the replica of Mary’s grandiose tomb, superior to that of Elizabeth Tudor’s in bombast and expense, commissioned by her son, James VI and I, for prominent display in Westminster Abbey. The tomb eloquently points to the considerable lengths that James went to, in order to underline his own pedigree by valorizing his vanquished mother and suggests an attempt on his behalf to assuage the guilt caused by his complicity in her downfall; he made only flimsy intercessions on behalf of his mother, in an effort not to compromise his own hoped-for succession. Also fleetingly considered at the conclusion of the exhibition are a handful of posthumous accounts of Mary’s execution and a late seventeenth-century print depicting her as the martyred Catholic par excellence. The exhibition, however, devotes no further attention to Mary’s extraordinarily rich historical and cultural afterlife, her cult-like status in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which has been instrumental in shaping contemporary perceptions of Mary, Queen of Scots. By extending the focus to encompass Mary’s historical afterlife, a broad range of Marian artwork, and spurious ‘relics’ (many of which already feature in the exhibition), could have provided an excellent platform for highlighting Mary’s chequered historiography and offered a fitting conclusion to the exhibition. While the current exhibition has many objects of considerable interest to recommend it, in places the narrative is diffuse, and many of the objects displayed rather than throwing light on one of Scotland most iconic, romantic and enigmatic historical figures leave the viewer a little confused as to their relevance.

University of Edinburgh, October 2013