A review of the brand new exhibition surrounding the remarkable life of Mary Queen of Scots.
“Heroine or whore, martyr or heretic, victim or villain”. Upon entering I am met with a floor to ceiling print of the infamous Scottish Queen with these words emblazoned alongside. From her likeness bursts out images, impressions and interpretations scattered across the wall, all inspired and fuelled by just one woman’s life.
The Afterlife of Mary Queen of Scots at the Hunterian Art Gallery is the culmination of a two-year research project led by Dr Steven Reid and curated by Anna Dulau-Beveridge. The team sought to explore the widespread fascination that has kept the Scottish monarch at the forefront of public opinion, through an investigation of historical and modern mediums. It is a celebration of longevity and legacy, a masterclass in the importance of reputation both throughout one’s life but especially in one’s afterlife.
The exhibit begins by wading through artefacts to find the ‘real Mary’. Portraying her life as a three-act play, the dramatisation of Mary’s life is very reliant on a collection of coins produced in her lifetime. Whilst it is an impressive collection, it does little to breathe life into the Queen.
On the other extreme, a piece which felt very personal to a point of almost invasive, was a painting by Amias Cawood (1587) titled, “Head of Mary Queen of Scots after Decollation.” Presented on a dish, the recently executed head of Mary is doll-like and surrounded by darkness. It has been sympathetically captured yet is very unsettling to gaze upon. Proudly owned and displayed by Sir Walter Scott for many years, this striking piece reminds me of the fascination with violence against women that is still prevalent in popular media today. It entices many questions including can Mary’s fame be attributed to her violent end?
As I journeyed further along into Mary’s afterlife, the exhibit did well to juggle themes of religion, politics, and gender. However, I felt the most powerful pieces from this point in the exhibit were those focused on her nature as a woman in an extremely patriarchal period of history. A vast collection of emotionally driven quotes, the majority of which were condemning or celebrating her womanhood, from across 400 years were spread across the wall. The display was remnant of graffiti scribbled across walls. In fact, it would have been very interesting to see such a display embrace this similarity further.
However, the piece that really ties the exhibit together is the romantic painting, ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ (1765-75) by neoclassical artist, Gavin Hamilton. The significant painting marks the beginning of a cascade of depictions of Mary fuelled by storytelling and creativity rather than religion or politics. The care and sympathy with which this piece was created is apparent in the soft strokes, lightness and gentility brought upon Mary surrounded by darker tones and the harsh grasp of men. Interestingly, the contrast of Mary to the rest of the painting really does generate the feeling of looking at her through rose-tinted glasses. One can feel the artist straying from the unfeeling realm of fact and allow emotions and sympathies to take over. It is a must-see piece, the jewel of the exhibit.
I felt the journey to exploring Mary’s afterlife could have ended with Hamilton’s work, yet, as the world kept changing and moving on, so too must the exhibit. Ending with a focus on modern adaptations of Mary’s image, the collection has seemingly every form of media. Even a rubber duck! Whilst a vibrant display, I felt that this section loses some of the impact built earlier in the exhibit. The tension, and intrigue falls jarringly flat at the end of an otherwise carefully curated exhibit. With a clear reduction in analysis and descriptors, this section feels like an afterthought reliant on an explosion of colour to push visitors to the end. Perhaps this simply reflects the further disconnect that has occurred due to the inevitable passage of time from Mary’s reign, but it is a shame to end on this note.
Whether you know everything about Mary Queen of Scots, or nothing at all, this exhibit will surely offer fresh perspectives and interesting insights into the power of storytelling and legacy. The Afterlife of Mary Queen of Scots is running until 5th February.