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Mary, Queen of Scots

6 of 151 portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots

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Mary, Queen of Scots

after Nicholas Hilliard
oil on panel, inscribed 1578
31 1/8 in. x 35 1/2 in. (791 mm x 902 mm)
NPG 429


A portrait of Mary in captivity that, although not produced from a sitting from the life, is likely to have been produced during her lifetime.

There is a ‘CR’ brand on the reverse of the panel, and the first reference to the painting is in the collection of King Charles I in 1637, where it was on display in the Tennis Court Chamber at Whitehall Palace. It is not readily identifiable with any of the eight portraits of Mary sold in the Commonwealth sale. The portrait was acquired at some stage by the Brocas family, Beaurepaire, Hants, and sold at Christie’s 10 June 1876 (lot 163) after Beaurepaire was sold. The portrait was bought by the Gallery from Henry Graves & Co later that year.

Historical context
In Charles I’s collection the portrait was recorded as ‘the picture of Marie of Scotland kinge James Moother at length / opan de lijeht / Painted upon a Board in a black wodden frame’, which had been ‘Brought from Scotland and given to ju M’. The painting has subsequently been reduced to a three-quarter length and the panel on the right has been replaced, resulting in the loss of the original left hand; dendrochronological analysis suggests that this occurred after 1670.

After being forced to abdicate in 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots fled to England and was subsequently imprisoned by Elizabeth I in the care of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. The letters ‘S H’ in the inscription above the date 1578 were interpreted by Strong to refer to ‘Salvationum Hominum’; it is interesting to note that the same form of letters are also inscribed on a copy of a portrait of Talbot at Hatfield House (link).The portrait of Mary contains markedly Catholic imagery. The inscription on the rosary is now much abraded, but comparison with other versions suggests that it originally read ‘ANGUSTIAE VNDIQVE’ (Troubles on all sides); it surrounds a depiction of Susanna and the Elders. The cross on the rosary incorporates the letter S in the four arms, presumably for Stuart.

Notes on attribution
The portrait derives from a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, which survives in two versions: one in the Royal Collection that appears to have been taken from the life, and one in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is not an exact copy however, as the direction of the sitter’s gaze has been altered. It is possible that the composition also relates to the incomplete painting that was mentioned in a letter from Mary’s secretary, Claude Nau, to the Archbishop of Glasgow in Paris in 1577.

Justification for dating
Dendrochronological analysis suggests that the original boards come from a tree felled after 1546 and the technique and materials are entirely consistent with a work from the second half of the sixteenth century. It is therefore possible that the portrait was painted in 1578, the date given in the inscription, and was intended to mark her ten years in captivity, possibly for a Scottish patron as the portrait was recorded has having been ‘brought from Scotland’ for Charles I. The portrait appears to be the earliest of the surviving large-scale versions. A number of full-length versions on canvas also bear the inscribed date 1578 but these are likely to date to the revival of Mary’s reputation in the early seventeenth century during the reign of her son James VI and I.

The paint surface is considerably abraded and there is overpaint and restoration in many areas; the background is entirely overpainted.

Painting technique
The original boards have a pale grey priming, over which the portrait was painted in thinly applied layers, with the grey used for the mid-tone in the thinly applied flesh paint. This can be seen around the eyes and also at the edges of the partlet. The hand on the left has been overpainted and some of this flesh paint also covers part of the lace cuff. The detail was painted with fine brushwork, which was applied wet-in-wet in some areas and also in final brushstrokes after the layer below had dried, such as in the ruff and veil. The cross and the rosary are depicted in fine detail and the black costume is painted with skilfully managed black paint mixtures.

The right-hand side of the painting is not original and the replacement boards are primed with a red layer, containing red ochre. The hand on the right was painted over the black costume with a completely different paint mixture to that used in the face and the hand on the left. The non-original part of the veil is not painted subtly but appears reasonably well integrated with the original paint surface.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was detected during surface examination or using infrared reflectography. However, reserves were left for elements of the composition, such as the face and hand on the left, which indicates that the composition was laid out on the surface with some form of underdrawing before painting.

Other known versions
- Hatfield House – full length
- Hardwick Hall, National Trust, NT 1129104
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery, PG 1073
- Collection of the Duke of Berwick and Alba, Madrid
- Copy by Daniel Mytens, Royal Collection
- Welbeck Abbey (the Cavendish and Harley Picture)

Cust, Lionel, Notes on the Authentic Portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, 1903, pp. 74 – 80
Foster, Joshua James, Concerning the True Portraiture of Mary, Queen of Scots, 1904, p. 52
Millar, Oliver, ed., 'Abraham van der Doort’s Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I', Walpole Society, XXXVII, 1960, p.1
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 215-6, 220-1

Exhibition history
'Great Britons: Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London', National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, 2007


Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the right (7.1…
Micro 04. Detail of headdress (7.1 x mag).
Micro 05. Detail of lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 07. Detail of blackwork and edge of ruf…
Micro 08. Detail of the edge of the partlet a…
Micro 09. Detail of the edge of the partlet a…
Micro 10. Detail of veil (7.1 x mag).
Micro 11. Detail of non-original area of veil…
Micro 15. Detail of diamonds on rosary (7.1 x…
Micro 16. Detail of rosary (7.1 x mag).
Micro 17. Detail of enamelled rosary bead (7.…
Micro 19. Detail of original ground and primi…
Micro 20. Detail of pale pigment mixture in t…
Micro 21. Detail of the edge of the hand on t…
Micro 22. Detail of flesh in the hand on the…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…
Reverse 01. Back of the panel in raking light…
Reverse detail 01. Detail of Charles I stamp…
Detail 06. Detail of the crucifix.

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The two boards on the right of the panel are later 17th century additions. Evidence in x-ray shows flaking and loss in the paint layer along the edge of the third board, which was part of the original construction. This would indicate that panel was very damaged at some stage and the original two right boards completely replaced. The remaining paint layer is in a reasonable condition. There are losses running along the length of the original panel joins. There is some retouching in the face following cracking in the paint layer caused by movement in the panel support.


Support type: English oak and German oak

Number of boards: 5

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel is in sound condition with a few old worm holes. The original joins have been disjoined and rejoined and there are a number of wood blocks attached for repair along all the joins.

Dendrochronology (what's this? )


An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.

Number of boards: 5

Last date of tree ring: English boards 1536, and German board 1662


The boards were labelled A to E from the left for analysis; boards A and E are much narrower than the others. There is no sapwood present. Board E was not suitable for analysis, but tree-ring sequences were obtained from the lower edges of boards A, B and C, and both the upper and lower edges of board D. The series from A, B and C were found to match strongly, which indicates that they derive from a single tree. The combined series matched English data. The last tree ring for Board B is 1536 and for Board C is 1534. Adding the appropriate minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that these boards derive from a tree felled after 1546. It is worth noting that on board A the direction of growth is outwards and the sequence ends 15 years earlier than boards B and C. This may indicate that it has not been reduced by very much.

Board D was found to be German oak. The last tree ring dated to 1662 and adding the minimum number of sapwood rings indicated that this board derives from a tree felled after 1670. This board is evidently a later repair.

Board E could not be identified but it is quite fast growing and has a curving grain, which suggests it is more likely to be English.

X-radiography (what's this? )


A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.

X-radiography reveals a very clear difference in appearance between the original boards of the panel and the replacement boards on the right-hand side (see x-ray mosaic 01. The broad brushwork of the priming layer is very clear on the three original boards, but the wood grain is the most prominent feature on the two replacement boards. The differences between the wood grains are very clear: the original boards show the wide fast growth of the English wood, and the wider of the replacement boards shows the strong rays of the German oak. The wide grain of the narrow board on the right suggests that it might be English (see Dendrochronology). Dowels can be seen linking the joins between the original boards. Wood blocks attached to the back as repair can also be seen in x-ray. Chipped paint can be seen along the bottom edge where the panel has been cut down. The edge of the lace cuff of the original hand on the right can be seen at the bottom of the last original board, to the right of the beads and to the left of the join with the replacement boards. The replacement hand can be seen above the cross. The left side hand has been repainted and some original lace can be seen near the wrist. The brushwork of the head and collars is very clear. Very little painted detail can be seen on the replacement boards.

Infrared reflectography (what's this? )

Infra-Red Reflectographyclose

A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.

No underdrawing could be detected using infrared reflectography (see DIRR 01). The broad brushstrokes of the priming layer can be seen in the face using infrared reflectography and infrared photography.

Paint sampling (what's this? )

Paint Samplingclose

Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.

Paint samples were taken to analyse the pigments and layer structure of the painting in April 2012.

Preparation layers
There is a chalk ground on the original panel, possibly with some lead white added to it. No priming was present in the paint samples. The replacement boards are prepared with a red priming containing red ochre.

Rosary bead
Sample 1: From the rosary bead on the left at the lower edge of the painting. Cross-section shows a grey paint mixture directly over the wood support, which contains lead white, carbon black, vermilion and a blue pigment. The ground and priming are not present in the sample, no doubt because the preparation layers were not applied to the very edge of the panel.

Black costume, on the original panel
Sample 2: From the costume to the right of the rosary bead on the left at the lower edge. Cross-section shows the chalk ground, which appears to contain chalk, lead white and a little carbon black. Above this are two layers of pure carbon black. The upper layer is darker and may contain a different black pigment to the lower layer. The lower layer is a solid black and the upper, more brownish layer may once have been a glaze.

Black costume, on the replacement board
Sample 3: From the lower edge, the costume below the arm on the right. Cross-section shows a confusing layer structure, preparation layers are present with black and red layers visible. The sample is from the replacement board and contains black costume paint and the red priming.

Red tablecloth
Sample 4: Cross-section shows the chalk ground, containing some lead white and a little carbon black. Above is the red paint with vermilion, red lake and a little lead white.
Sample 5: Cross-section shows a grey layer with chalk, lead white and carbon black, and the red layer above containing vermilion, red lake and fine lead white.

Sample 6: From the brownish-black paint on the replacement board at the lower-right corner. Cross-section shows a red underlayer containing opaque red ochre, a pale grey layer over it containing lead white and carbon black, and a dark layer over this containing a mixture of red lake and some black. This is probably the grey underlayer for the drapery with a crimson glaze over it, indicating that the curtain was once a more vibrant red.

Surface examination (what's this? )

Surface Examinationclose

An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.

Painting style and method
The right side of the panel is a replacement dating from the seventeenth century. There are clear differences in technique between the original and the non-original areas of the paint surface.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground, possibly with some lead white (see Paint sampling), and a thin off-white priming. The priming was broadly applied with even brushstrokes and contains lead white and some red lead and black pigments (see micro 19). The non-original, replacement boards on the right-hand side have a red ochre priming.

Neither surface microscopy nor infrared reflectography revealed any underdrawing.

The flesh was thinly painted over the priming and abrasion has exposed the broad diagonal brushstrokes of the priming on the surface. The paint mixture in the pale parts of the flesh contains lead white, black, red lake and azurite (see micro 20). The pinker parts are painted with much more red lake and some opaque red. The red lake particles have faded, which indicates that the flesh has most probably faded overall. The flesh is heavily retouched over the wear and craquelure.

The eyes are defined with a medium-rich mixture of black, red lake and azurite, and possibly also earth pigments. The priming has been left exposed in some parts of the eyes and used as a mid-tone. The whites of the eyes are painted with lead white with some azurite and black, and the edge of the white of the eye on the right is softened by a soft brush dragging paint into the iris (see micro 01). The irises are very worn and restored. Particles of vermilion are included in the brown iris paint mixture. There is a lead white highlight on the pupils.

Eyebrows, lips and nose
The flesh paint over the priming is thinner in the eyebrows than elsewhere, with a very thin layer of grey above. The eyebrows have been strengthened with restoration. The lips were painted with a pale pink mixture over the thinly applied flesh paint. A red glaze containing a little black was applied over the pale pink (see micro 05). The nose is defined with a similar paint mixture to the red lake mixture used to define the eyes.

Hair and headdress
The hair was thinly painted over the flesh using a small soft brush with a medium-rich mixture of black, red lake and earth pigments. The headdress was painted with grey applied in two tones (see micro 04). The first part was applied before the hair, and the second part after the hair was painted . The pale grey was applied over the priming with lead white, some black and possibly a little red lake. The dark grey mixture is similar but contains more black. The dark grey areas were blended wet-in-wet. The lead white lace detail was applied last.

The black costume is painted in two layers: a dark grey layer, and a layer above containing red lake and black and possibly some transparent earth pigment (see micro 09). This dark layer above was applied to give saturation and density to the black. The partlet is painted with a very thinly applied layer of grey over the priming, and the white detail applied wet-in-wet above. The priming is exposed at the edges (see micro 08).

Ruff and veil
The ruff was painted with a very thin layer of grey over the priming, over which the white detail was applied with a very fine brush when the grey layers had dried. The blackwork embroidery was painted in a similar manner (see micro 07). The veil is very thinly painted with a brushy application of pale grey over the costume and background paint. The white edging and detail were added to this (see micro 10).
The non-original part of the veil, on the right-hand side, is not painted subtly but is reasonably well integrated. The red priming of the replacement boards can be seen beneath the veil. There is an usual bubbling effect in the grey surface paint in this area (see micro 11).

The hand on the left is original but has been overpainted; part of the lace cuff has also been overpainted with flesh paint (see micro 21). The hand on the right is not original and is painted over the black costume paint using a completely different flesh paint mixture from the face. The mixture in the non-original hand contains lead white, smalt, red lake, black and green, which is possibly green earth (see micro 22). There is a red priming beneath this hand. This red priming is found on the replacement boards on the right-hand side of the panel and seems to spread over the join near the non-original hand. In x-ray, part of the lace cuff of the original hand can be seen below the non-original hand, at the bottom edge (see X-ray).

Chain, cross and rosary
There appear to be two tones of lead-tin yellow used in the chain, and some red lake was added to the darker yellow. Vermilion was used for details (see micro 17). Pure lead-tin yellow highlights and some pure lead white highlights were applied. The rosary beads are painted over the costume paint. Details for the enamelling on the beads contain verdigris and red lake. In the enamelled central image on the cross, with two kneeling male figures and a naked central figure, the blue drapery contains azurite and the red is vermilion (see micro 16). The black parts of the diamonds are painted with grey and black, with a layer above containing red lake and black applied in order to give density and saturation to the black, using the same method as in the costume paint (see micro 15).

The original grey background was applied at an early stage in the painting process. Much of the background is now heavily abraded and overpainted with a warm brown. This overpaint appears to have been carried out at the same time as the restoration to the two right-hand boards. In areas where the original grey is exposed, there is evidence of significant abrasion; the paint layer appears to be composed of lead white, black and earth pigments. The warm overpaint above is thickly applied and contains a considerable amount of red pigment. A translucent red lake containing glaze was then applied on top in some areas.

The inscriptions were painted with a mixture of lead white, yellow ochre, black and opaque red. Some of the letters are heavily strengthened, particularly along the panel join, and there is a non-original red glaze on the surface.

Order of construction
- Ground
- Grey Priming on the original part of the panel (Red priming on the non-original boards)
- First layer of background on the original panel
- First layer for costume then partlet painted
- Tablecloth
- Another layer on background
- Flesh blocked in
- Pale grey parts of the headdress
- Hair blocked in
- Shadow on headdress put in
- Hair finished over headdress
- Upper later of costume
- Lace detail and jewellery
- Inscription

Azurite, carbon black, earth pigments, lead-tin yellow, lead white, red lake, red lead, red ochre, black, verdigris, vermilion, yellow ochre (non-original pigments: smalt and possibly green earth)

Restoration observations
The two boards on the right-hand side of the panel are later seventeenth century replacements. The hand on the right has been repainted to integrate the original paint scheme in the later addition. There is retouching along the panel joins covering old losses and some retouching in the face toning down cracks in the paint layer.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.

There is an overall opaque dull fluorescence (see UV 01). On the black costume there are square shapes where old varnish has been partially removed, which indicates careful cleaning in this area. The most recent retouchings, which appear black in ultra violet light, are scattered around the edges and in the face.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 20th century.


Entablature style frame. Painted black with single band of oil gilding.