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Biography 26.3 (2003) 474-475

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Robin Nicholson. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Making of a Myth: A Study in Portraiture, 1720-1892. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP; London: Associated University Presses, 2002. 156 pp. ISBN 0-8387-5495-3, $59.50.

Very few of us have baby pictures of international importance, but for the exiled Stuart dynasty of Great Britain, portraits, medals, and souvenirs played a vital role in reinforcing their status as monarchs and promoting their possible return to the British throne. Jacobite material culture has been well handled by Paul Monod, and the royal self-construction by works like Peter Burke's The Fabrication of Louis XIV, but here, Nicholson blends a formidable knowledge of Jacobite and eighteenth century history with art history to evaluate the construction of "Bonnie Prince Charlie's" public image. In doing so, Nicholson provides a neat recap of Jacobite beliefs in absolute and divine monarchy, the ways in which physical representations of the royal family served to advance this cause, and how viewers (much like Louis XIV's courtiers, who bowed to the king's image), interacted with the works produced. When British subjects needed to be reminded that they had been misled from the will of God, you needed a powerful image to get the message across!

The book's gorgeously reproduced portraits, gleaned from the author's access to the Drambuie Liqueur Company's collection, as well as the Scottish Portrait Gallery and the Royal collections held by Queen Elizabeth II, make it clear that the portraits of the young heir had to not only resemble his parents in distinctive Stuart and Sobieski looks, but also have the desired physiognomy traits of a good ruler. Additionally, like Jacobite documents, the portraits have encoded messages in the seasons, dress, borders, and mottoes of the image—from the enormously subtle references to obscure Greek mythology, to the changing use of the Orders of the Garter and Thistle. Although strapped for cash, the Stuarts paid for the best, made it an act of loyalty for their supporters to foot the bill, or arranged for French artists to get prestige and royal connections by working for them, all in the interest of powerful portraits designed for easy reproduction through cheaper engraved prints. This was the high end of a fascinating propaganda machine.

Nicholson's work is excellent not just in its examination of the "medal wars" between the Stuarts and Hanoverians, the political prosecutions of political and artistic subversives, the sparing and strategic use of tartan, and even the reflections of the prince's image in anti-Jacobite satires, but also for its tracing of the Jacobite trappings past 1788 and into the Victorian age. The last Stuart portraits of the 1770s are a sad and striking inclusion as the prince needed a portrait for a traditional reason: searching for a willing bride. No longer a threat, Jacobites, their prince, and the Highland clansman [End Page 474] became favorite subjects, but were transformed in the process, with Charles becoming an almost Arthurian child-prince, and the Stuarts tragic and depoliticized heroes (along with their ancestors Mary Stuart and Charles I).

Eighteenth century historians will value this work because of its tantalizing questions. How did Stuart patronage affect the careers of artists like Cosmo Alexander or Rosalba Carriera? Why and how did Hanoverian kings evolve a startlingly different image of kingship? And why are Stuart portraits still valuable as commercial packaging (for Drambuie, Walker's shortbread, and Scottish tourism)? Three appendixes provide a complete listing of all Charles Edward Stuart portraits, misidentified portraits, and nineteenth century works with Jacobite subject matter—a valuable catalog for Jacobite scholars. This is more than biography; it is a substantial contribution to the material culture history of a European court that mustered every effort to regain its throne, and despite exile and failure, became a national and cultural symbol—perhaps winning the propaganda war after all?

Margaret Sankey

Margaret Sankey is Assistant Professor of History at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, specializing in Modern European History. Her...


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