Richard Hoover: These miniatures ‘got soul!’
If every great antique has its “soul,” and the duty of the beholder is to give it voice, any sizing-up of that object must take into account more than condition alone.
Period wear and tear, for example, are often significant, may reveal that the object has definitely “been there.” I think of an icon whose dark surface bespeaks years of exposure to candle smoke, bespeaks years of veneration. And there’s the normally rounded “drag” on the end of the scabbard to a Model 1860 cavalry saber; when found worn flat, it tells the tale of being bumped along the ground [and by a very short trooper] through years of American Civil War!
Under the heading of soulful “wear and tear,” belong these 18th-century miniature portraits of a father and son, each set within an elaborate framework of wood, metalwork and velvet, backed in fine black Morocco. The dark red velvet covering tells a tale of love, if not veneration, of frequent holding and hand-to-hand progression as the two portraits made their way from one generation to another. The velvet is worn right to its base fabric by human touch, not by decomposition; in areas protected by the decorative metal foliage, where fingers cannot intrude, the velvety pile is still rich and vivid in color.
I mention “veneration” in a religious sense because, as you have undoubtedly guessed, the portraits are of no ordinary father and son, but the immediate descendants of James II, the Stuart King deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9, who fled into continental exile. Note the dove over each portrait — symbol of the Holy Spirit!
Determined to recover the throne their forbears once held by “divine right,” Catholic Stuarts, with legions of Catholic and Protestant supporters, battled against the reigning monarchs of England, hardly ever quitting. As historian Daniel Szechi points out, for over 70 years following the Glorious Revolution, the Stuarts were responsible for four rebellions, seven planned foreign invasions and between seven and 10 major conspiracies against the state — not to mention hundreds of serious anti-establishment riots.
I wonder from which of the many groups of English, Irish and Scottish supporters these portraits sprang. Did they come from the devout “non-juring” Anglicans, persecuted because they refused to accept the results of 1688, refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary?
Were they from the persecuted English and Welsh Catholics who steadfastly maintained their ties to the Stuarts in exile, hoping that a restoration would secure religious toleration? Did our portraits spring from the Scottish Episcopalians who also hoped that a Stuart restoration would end their persecution? Or, did they originate with the large numbers who opposed the 1707 union between England and Scotland, who looked to a Stuart restoration to regain Scottish independence?
Maybe our portraits came from Catholic Ireland, where restoration was seen as an end to English repression. Maybe they even sprang from the continent where thousands of young Irish went to enlist in the armies of France and Spain, hoping that one day, with Stuarts in command, they would spearhead a foreign invasion to rescue their homeland.
Whether Catholic, Protestant or Anglican, and no matter how diverse or competing their goals may have been, Stuart supporters shared a common feeling of searing alienation, caused by the barbarities they had suffered at the hands of clans, authorities and armies loyal to the reigning kings and queens. Barbarities, to include the 1692 massacre of the Macdonalds of Glencoe, rose to Balkan stature in that they were never forgotten.
On the left is the son of King James II, the self-styled James III, called the “Old Pretender,” 1688-1766. On the right, in full armor, his son, Charles Edward Stuart, the “New Pretender” — also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1720-1788. See how their pretensions are broadcast by symbols of power: in James’ hand, the red rose of England makes claim to the English crown; the blue sash running underneath his coat [never worn on the outside] is the Order of the Thistle, indicating his claim to Scotland. Just to make sure, English roses bloom in the metallic foliage surrounding each portrait, are repeated in the very shape of the velvet-covered backdrops on which the two miniatures are mounted.
Oak leaves also appear in the metallic foliage, reminders of the metaphorical Stuart dynastic oak. Cut down with the execution of Charles I in 1649, it revived with the Stuart restoration of Charles II in 1660. Leveled once again by the deposition and exile of James II in 1688/9, it again sprang upward, its oak shoots symbolizing the two Pretenders — James III and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
How then to size-up these two miniatures? Whatever their condition– wear and tear, a tiny fleck or two of missing paint — it is a miracle that they are still together after 250 years. The elaborate, iconographic framework and the heavily worn velvet indicate that they were highly valued, had actually “been there.” Historical context confirms that the pair meant business, were deadly serious creations which represented the passions and hopes of multitudes on both sides of the English Channel. To paraphrase the smash reggae hit from Toots & The Maytals, these miniatures “got soul!”
Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warren County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.