Remarkable portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots discovered under 16th-century painting of a man

Adrian Vanson’s Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane (1589) and an X-ray view which reveals a portrait hidden underneath the top paint layers
Adrian Vanson's Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane (1589) and an X-ray view which reveals a portrait hidden underneath the top paint layers. Credit: National Trust Images

Unfinished portrait of controversial 16th-century queen Mary Stuart found under painting of Sir John Maitland. The picture may have been painted and then covered up in dangerous times

A rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots has been found hidden under another 16th-century painting.

The unfinished image of the woman looks very similar to other depictions of the queen at the time. It was uncovered by X-ray photography during an examination of a portrait of Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane by Adrian Vanson.

Conservator Dr Caroline Rae, the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Caroline Villers Research Fellow, examined the work in conjunction with the National Galleries of Scotland. She described the discovery as “an exciting revelation”.

Vanson’s portrait of Sir John Maitland, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, usually hangs at Ham House, near London, owned by the National Trust.

Mary Stuart, often called Mary, Queen of Scots, was a controversial figure. She was forced to abdicate in 1567 when she was implicated in her husband’s murder, imprisoned by Elizabeth I in 1568, and executed in 1587 – two years before the inscribed date on the portrait. Mary’s recent execution may be why the portrait was covered over or abandoned. David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust, said: “The remarkable discovery of the unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots… 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.” There are relatively few existing pictures of the queen.

Mary. Queen of Scots. Life of Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots became queen when she was just six days old.Credit: iStock

The woman’s face is similar to two miniatures by the English artist Nicholas Hilliard in the Royal Collection and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Other clues include the woman’s pose – her head is tilted and her hand at her waist seem to be holding something. She is also wearing a wired cap and square-necked gown, just as she is in other portraits.

Dr Rae added: “The discovery of this hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots is an exciting revelation. [It] 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.”

X-ray photography can penetrate paint layers and is stopped by pigments containing heavy metals such as lead white (a white pigment). The X-ray revealed lead white of a woman’s face and the outline of her dress and hat beneath the paint.

Visitors can see the work in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Art and Analysis: Two Netherlandish Painters working in Jacobean Scotland, which runs from 28 October 2017 to 26 January 2020.