Hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, discovered underneath a 16th-century painting


Even if we look closely enough at the above-pictured painting, we can only make out a distinguished-looking man dressed in his premium attire. This man in question pertains to Sir John Maitland, Lord Chancellor of Scotland during the 16th century – the same epoch in which Mary, Queen of Scots lived and died. But beyond just confluence of similar time periods, Mary and John shared more than that meets the eye. To that end, a research project entailing X-ray photography conducted by the collaborative effort of National Galleries of Scotland and the Courtauld Institute of Art has revealed an unfinished portrait of Queen Mary beneath the ‘veneer’ of Sir John (in the above painting).


The 16th-century painting of Sir John Maitland is often attributed to Adrian Vanson (died circa 1604-1610 AD), who was a part of the duo of Netherlandish painters (comprising Adam de Colone and Vanson himself) noted for their flurry of works in Scotland at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century. The fascinating discovery of Queen Mary’s ‘ghost’ portrait was made when conservator Dr. Caroline Rae was routinely analyzing the works of the aforementioned duo from the art archives of National Galleries of Scotland.

The hidden portrait was unraveled by using an assessment technique involving X-radiography (X-ray). In technical terms, these X-rays have the ability to penetrate through the outer paint layers, but cannot pass through the pigments containing heavy metals such as lead white (a pigment that was commonly used in European paintings of the 16th century). In essence, the obstacle to the path of the X-rays revealed the presence of lead white depicting a woman’s face underneath the main painting. The researchers could also make out the vague outline of her dress and hat.


Dr. Rae was successfully able to trace these outlines, and the consequent result revealed a visage of a woman which was quite similar to that of Mary, Queen of Scots. The face in itself bears a strong resemblance to the miniature works of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) that depict Queen Mary. Furthermore, the posture of the subject, entailing finer points like the tilt of her head and the positioning of her fingers, along with her wired cap and square-necked gown, coincide with the other portrayals of the controversial queen, including one displayed at Blair Castle, Perthshire.

Pertaining to the ‘controversial’ part, it was the very contentious scope of Queen Mary’s life and death, like her then-recent execution in 1587 AD, that possibly played a part in the cover-up of the original portrait. In any case, the researchers were still pleasantly surprised by this incredible discovery. Dr. Rae said –

Technical examination of works of art, in conjunction with art historical and documentary research, forms the pillars of technical art history. Using technical art history, it is possible to illuminate artists’ materials and techniques for the first time in centuries, to discern copies and forgeries and to explore questions of authorship and workshop practice. The discovery of this hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots is an exciting revelation, not only as it adds to our knowledge of 16th century Marian portraiture and patterns of commission at the time, but as it aids in illuminating our understanding of Adrian Vanson, a Netherlandish émigré artist who came to Jacobean Scotland to seek a new life and quickly ascended to the status of Crown painter.


David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust, commented –

Vanson’s portrait of Sir John Maitland is an important picture in the National Trust collection, and the remarkable discovery of the unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots adds an exciting hidden dimension to it. It shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing.

And finally, Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, concluded –

This fascinating discovery has been made thanks to an innovative collaboration undertaken by the National Galleries of Scotland, the Courtauld Institute of Art and the National Trust. The shadowy presence of the Queen beneath a painting of Scotland’s Lord Chancellor could not have been detected without Dr. Rae’s technical expertise. The analysis of this intriguing picture forms a key part of a broader project, which we hope will raise awareness of such important research for many visitors to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Source/Images Credit: National Galleries of Scotland / Via: National Geographic