Spotlight feature by Freddie Pegram
The Rothes Portraits
On the night of 7 October 1991, a fire tore through a warehouse on an unassuming industrial estate near Heathrow Airport. The warehouse contained the stores of a fine art packing and shipping company, James Bourlet & Sons. It is believed that fine art and furniture worth between £20 million and £100 million was obliterated in the inferno.
The Bourlet fire received international attention and was the subject of reporting by an array of global news outlets. Who or what generated the inferno has remained unresolved. Nonetheless, what is clear, is that the fire led to one of the single, most costly, fine art losses in post-war history.
Among the works destroyed were four unique portraits of four individual women (see below). All portrayed members of an historic Scottish family known to this day as Clan Leslie. The Scottish line of the Leslie family can be traced to the eleventh century. In the fifteenth century, they became the Earls of Rothes (pronounced “Roth-is”); this group of paintings will here be referred to as the “Rothes Portraits”
Viewed chronologically, the oldest portrait, completed in the second half of the seventeenth century by an artist known only as L. Schuneman, depicts the matriarchal figure of Anne Lindsay, 1st Duchess of Rothes (1631–1689) (above, upper row, left). Anne’s portrait is followed by two paintings from the studio of John Baptiste de Medina. They portray Anne’s daughter Margaret (d. 1700) (above, upper row, middle) and Margaret’s own daughter-in-law Lady Jean Hay (d. 1731) (above, upper row, right). Finally, separated by a jump of around 200 years, is a portrait of Lucy Noël Leslie (née Lucy Noël Edwards-Dyer, 1878–1956) painted by the early twentieth-century Scottish portraitist Monro Mackie (above, lower row). Despite the historical distances between these women, the Bourlet fire acted as a crucible in which their lives and their portraits became fused together.
The PMC’s archival images demonstrate that, that despite the decades and centuries separating the portraits, all four paintings fall into the same highly formalised type: the society portrait. They tell us that these were aristocratic women of significant wealth and status. However, while such conventional depictions provide an idea of these women’s individual appearance, they offer limited insight into their personalities and lived experiences. These historical individuals, with the exception perhaps of Noël Leslie, are often treated as little more than addenda to their husbands. This display focusses upon these women in a little more detail and—despite the limits of the historical record—attempts to make them the protagonists of their own stories.
Anne Lindsay was the daughter of John Crawford, a prominent statesman who became Lord High Treasurer of Scotland in 1644 and President of Scottish Parliament in 1645. In 1658, she married John Leslie 7th Earl of Rothes and 1st Duke of Rothes, whose well-documented political career unquestionably had a strong bearing on her life and is noteworthy in order to properly appreciate Anne’s own story. John Leslie took over from his father-in-law as the High Treasurer in 1663, before being promoted to the position of Lord High Chancellor of Scotland in 1667. His accession to Scotland’s highest office was the result of his loyalty to King Charles II during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. He was captured by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and was imprisoned in the Tower of London shortly thereafter. Following Charles’ restoration to the throne in 1660, Leslie remained a trusted ally of the king. This is evidenced not only by the titles bestowed upon him, but also by the fact he carried the sword of state at Charles’ opulent coronation in 1661, after his return from exile (below, left).
John Leslie, 7th Earl and 1st Duke of Rothes, 1630–1681—a portrait of Leslie by L. Schuneman remains extant in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland (below, middle). It is highly likely that this painting was a pendant to the portrait of Anne lost in the Bourlet fire. Together, they combine to make clear the opulence and power of the Rothes family during Anne’s lifetime.
It might be easy to lose sight of Anne’s story in the shadows cast by the illustrious offices and historically rich life enjoyed by her husband. However, she should not be solely defined as the wife of a prominent statesman. Anne was a devout Presbyterian. Following the Restoration, the gathering of Presbyterians at meetings known as conventicles was banned, in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church of England and its implicit legitimisation of Monarchic rule (above, right). Ironically, Anne’s husband was tasked by the king to impose Anglican episcopacy upon the large Presbyterian population of Scotland, a duty he carried out zealously. The two are said to have had a bizarre relationship, at once antagonistic and mutually respectful. While John persecuted covenanters, his wife Anne would attend their gatherings and provide a haven for them at the newly built, grand family seat, Leslie House.
The force of Anne’s personality can be inferred from anecdotal tales of their relationship. In an account of Anne’s life, in an 1857 text titled The Ladies of the Covenant: Memoirs of Scottish Distinguished Female Characters, the author James Anderson writes that Anne was given forewarnings by her husband of impending warrants for the arrest of her religious allies. On one occasion, John purportedly remarked to his wife: “My hawks will be out tonight, my lady, so you had better take care of your blackbirds!” Although the veracity of Anderson’s account, written more than 150 years later, might well be questioned, this remarkable anecdote allows us to parse more feeling from Anne’s rather lifeless portrait and illuminates the small corner of Scottish folklore she occupies.
There is much less recorded information regarding the lives of Margaret Leslie and Jean Hay. Margaret was the eldest of Anne Lindsay and John Leslie’s two daughters. The resemblance of Margaret to her mother is clear from the two lost portraits. With the absence of a male heir, the Dukedom of Rothes, created for John Leslie in 1680, became extinct just one year later, upon his death in 1681. The Earldom of Rothes, however, passed down to his eldest daughter Margaret, 8th Countess of Rothes, and so when she married her cousin John Hamilton, Earl of Haddington, he took on the surname Leslie and the Rothes title. Margaret and John Hamilton’s first son John, 9th Earl of Rothes, in turn, married Lady Jean Hay, the subject of the third portrait in the set.
Neither Margaret nor Jean Hay’s portraits offer a great deal of insight into their lived experience. Without a good deal more research—and perhaps even after such research—the details of these women’s lives, and of the situations they found themselves in, will remain similarly opaque. By contrast, many readers will have come across the biography of Noël Leslie, Countess of Rothes, the subject of the fourth lost picture, perhaps without having even realised it. On 10 April 1912, the Countess boarded a ship at Southampton to embark upon a voyage to New York, to join her husband Norman Leslie, 19th Earl of Rothes, in America. Noël, named for her Christmas birthday, and a popular and fashionable member of London’s high society, was apparently “full of joyful expectation” at the prospect of her American visit. But she was not going to complete her journey across the Atlantic. The ship that was to take Noël to America was the RMS Titanic.
In James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning film Titanic, Noël was portrayed by the British actress Rochelle Rose (see left). Cameron’s film does well to reflect the real Countess’ renowned beauty and glamour, features that are clearly evident both in the portrait lost in the Bourlet fire and in the abundant photographic portraits of her throughout her life. However, what Cameron’s film does not show are the actions which earned her a great deal of attention in the aftermath of the disaster.
After the “unsinkable” Titanic struck the iceberg, which would prove that infamous boast so fatally misguided, the Countess, along with her travelling companions, was placed in lifeboat 8, the first vessel lowered to sea from the Titanic’s portside. Noël is celebrated for the help she provided Able Seaman Thomas William Jones aboard the lifeboat. She is said to have manned the tiller, taken turns on the oars, and comforted traumatised fellow passengers during the five hours before the lifeboat was picked up by the Carpathia. Aboard the rescue ship, she continued to provide support to victims of the disaster. Thanks to her actions, Noël became the subject of a number of written accounts, which proclaimed Noël a hero. She was also nicknamed “The Plucky Little Countess” by members of the Carpathia’s crew.
In addition to her actions during the sinking of the Titanic, Noël, a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and a keen philanthropist, was also praised for her actions during the First World War, during which she treated injured troops at Leslie House.
While the loss of her portrait in the Bourlet fire is partially allayed by the great deal of photographic and written evidence of her life and deeds, the destroyed painting still provided a distinctive representation of this celebrated woman, and a unique remnant of Noel Leslie’s colourful life (below).
This display was intended, at least in part, to reveal the stories behind works preserved in the PMC’s archives, which might otherwise have remained untold. With the “Rothes Portraits”, it has focused on the way that archival materials can animate the subjects of portraits, rather than the artists who produce them. The drama of the Bourlet fire afforded the opportunity to seek out and engage with the lives of the four women portrayed in this group of paintings. They are a dramatic example of the power of the archive to preserve remnants of history which may otherwise be lost. And while they may not be the most articulate historical objects or the most impressive works of art, they are still vestiges of a life lived. Thanks to their preservation in the PMC’s photographic archive, it has been possible, with mixed success, to shed light onto these women and their lives.