Datable to circa 1683, this highly important example of John Michael Wright's late work is the earliest major portrait to show Highland dress.
Mungo Murray was born on 29 February 1668, the eighth child and fifth son of John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl and Lady Amelia Stanley, fourth daughter of James, 7th Earl of Derby. His father became Marquess of Atholl in 1676, from which time the sitter would have been styled Lord Mungo Murray.
The only published source of information on his life appears to be Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families, collected and arranged by John, 7th Duke of Atholl, in five volumes, privately published in 1908. Nearly all the references to him concern his military role in the troubles in the North of Scotland in the 1680s and 1690s. A letter from his father to his brother, the Earl of Tullibardine, of 4 March 1698, describes him as he appears in Wright's portrait: 'That Vilaine [i.e. a renegade] scap'd very narrowly. Mungo was within 4 or 5 mile of him, who [i.e. Mungo] marcht in a belted plad [plaid] to admiration, which did encourage the men much, for he had a very good smart partie sent by his Brother with him, the ablest men in the countrey.'
Curiously, he seems to have been semi-illiterate, as the following letter of a similar date and between the same correspondents, shows. It is also redolent of how he appears in the portrait: 'The secretarie sends you Mungo's letter to her [i.e. Mungo's mother] tho' it be not well writt, but i assure you tho' he cant write nor speak well, yet none can be more zealous in this just cause than himself, who walkt thigh deep in snow to catch the knave, & it was not his fault he missed him.'
He seems latterly to have tired of his father's company and to have moved to his brother's house of Huntingtower. The Earl of Tullibardine writes about him to their father in March 1699: '... [he] has alwayes carried himself dutifully, but it seems his being so long without any imployment or certane way of living has wearied his patience.' A letter from his sister-in-law, the Countess of Tullibardine, to her husband, written a few months later (June 1699) also hints at his unsettled character: '... past twelve a clock, your brother Mungo is just now come here, but is in such heast [haste] he will not sitt down, let be stay diner [i.e. let alone stay for dinner].'
A rather touching insight into his life is given in a letter written from Edinburgh on 26 February 1699 by Colonel George Murray to Mungo's brother Lord Murray. It concerns attempts to marry him to Margaret Campbell, daughter of Lord Cessnock. She was strongly opposed to the idea - she may have found his inability to 'speak well' unattractive, or she may have had someone else in mind: '... my lord Sesnoke [Lord Cessnock] and his laday hes bein very presinge withe ther douchter to accepte of your brother for a husband, and that she would aloue [allow] him a conference in private, but she positivlly refused bothe ... Yesterday ... I went with Sesnoke [Cessnock] to his house. He spoke to his douchter that my lord Mungo was to visit her, which he came to doe. She was civill anufe, and all of ws cheirfull and good company ... going to the musike house my lord waited on her to her coache, but hes hed no ocatione as yet to prefer his service to her. I am heartilly sorry for my lord Mungo, he is muche concerned, for he hes a reall afection for the laday, and is exceidingly vext that she should sufer anny displeasure of her parents wpoun his account, but i doe my best to comfort him by telling him manny exampells of women's adversnes at first ... [Lord Cessnock] tould me yestrday that he begins to fynd his douchter a litill more tractabell, and desyres my lord Mungo not to dispaire ... if ther be not divlery or wichcrafte in the busines, I am confident she will complay'.
She did not in the event comply, and married Alexander Hume, the future Earl of Marchmont, the following year. Early in that same year Lord Mungo sailed for Darien in Panama as part of the ill-fated attempt to found a Scottish colony there. Shortly after his arrival he was killed by Spanish forces.
Although John Michael Wright was born in London, it was to the Scottish painter George Jameson in Edinburgh that he was apprenticed in 1636. He remained North of the border for at least the next five years before travelling to Rome in the early 1640s where he soon established himself as both a collector and dealer, painter and copyist. That he attained a certain position in the cosmopolitan company of artists, dealers, patrons, and connoisseurs on the Continent is underlined by his election, in 1648, to the Accademia di San Luca, and his gaining, in 1653 or 1654, a post with Archduke Leopold, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. After very probably spending some time in France, the artist returned to England in 1656. Following the restoration of 1660, Wright, a Catholic, received several Royal commissions from both King Charles II, and subsequently King James II. Other key commissions included that from the Aldermen of the City, in 1670, for twenty-two full-length portraits of the judges who had presided over the disputes (mainly concerning property boundaries) caused by the Great Fire. Unfortunately only two examples from this great series survive.
For many years the identity of the sitter in the present picture was a matter for considerable conjecture. Collins Baker (op.cit.) suggested that it could be 'another character study of Lacy, the actor', while other ideas included the Regent Moray and the 1st Earl of Breadalbane. Somewhat ironically, the real origins of the present picture appear to relate to the artist's stay, 1679-83, not in Scotland, but in Ireland, a country Wright is believed to have chosen to escape the strong anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent in London at the time.
Lord Mungo Murray could claim kinship with the Irish Dukes of Ormonde through his mother's relatives, the Earls of Derby, and it seems likely that this younger son of a Scottish nobleman was attached to the Ormonde household as part of his education. In 1680 the Duke of Ormonde commissioned Wright to paint the very Irish full-length Portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill (London, Tate Gallery, see fig. 1), and in all probability Lord Mungo, as a visiting Scot, was chosen to be portrayed in a companion picture constituting a comparably distinctive Scottish image. Much of the evidence to support this theory was discovered in the Ormonde inventories and published by Dr Jane Fenlon in the Burlington Magazine (op.cit.):
'Among the inventories of goods taken at Kilkenny Castle, Co. Kilkenny, and at Ormonde House, St James's Square in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, are the following entries. At Kilkenny Castle, 1684: 'The Hylander in a Scotch Habitt'. At St James's Square, 1689: 'A picture of the Irishman, A picture of the Hylander, whole lengths in guilt frames'. At St James's Square, 1700: 'A picture of Sir Neale O'Neill in an Irish Habitt at length; A picture of Lord Murrey's son in Highland habitt at length'. The final inventory, of 1713, identifies the picture of 'Lord Murrey's son' at St James's Square as 'Sir Mungo Murray'.'
Thus the Dukes of Ormonde seem to have owned at least one version of Sir Neil O'Neill and two of Lord Mungo Murray, the latter two portraits probably being the present work and the version now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. These two pictures are extremely close to one another, the principal difference being that the goats in the background do not appear in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery painting. However, a third version that may have been largely autograph is recorded in the possession of John Alastair Erskine Cunninghame of Balgownie, before the Second World War, and most recently (1961) in a private Scottish collection. This is the picture that is believed to have been in the collection of William Beckford at Fonthill, sold in London about 1819. An old photograph suggests that the background is different from both the other two versions. There is, however, one major difference: instead of a bonnet the sitter wears a steel helmet with plumes, perhaps a reference to his military activities. Significantly, his bonnet in this instance lies on the ground at his feet.
A distinctive style of dress and selection of garments with large tartan plaid and close-fitting breeches became the hallmark of Highland society at least from the 16th Century onward, and earned a widespread, sometimes fearsome reputation in the 17th and 18th Centuries, to be proscribed by law throughout Scotland in the wake of the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6. Coming under the enthusiastic gaze of European Romanticism, warmed to a new fervour by the literary discoveries of James 'Ossian' Macpherson, Highland dress was then adopted in an attenuated form, mainly through the medium of late 18th and early 19th military uniform, as national costume for Lowlanders and Highlanders alike, being designed and customised even by those whose fathers and grandfathers had held it in dread and contempt. A particularly striking example of a sitter in Highland dress, of circa 1812, is Raeburn's Colonel Alastair Ronaldson Macdonnell of Glengarry (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, see fig. 2). The royal seal of enthusiastic approval and a new line in castle tartan interiors fed an international tartan mania through Queen Victoria's long reign; this was triggered initially by King George IV's espousal of Highland dress during his celebrated visit to Scotland in 1822 when parties of Highlanders gathered in Edinburgh under the command of their respective chieftains. But a citizen of the capital also spoke for many when he carped at the new image and commented: 'Sir Walter [Scott] has ridiculously made us appear to be a nation of Highlanders, and the bagpipe and the tartan are the order of the day'.
The colour and design of Highland dress as much as its form has given it its cachet in modern times; using typically patterned cloth described as 'tartan' in which yarn is woven in sequences of colour in warp and weft to produce stripes and regular and regulated checks described as 'setts'. The decorative technique is simple and must originally have been achieved with naturally coloured wool of early breeds of domesticated sheep, separated out and spun into different coloured yarns which, when woven, would achieve muted checks. The principle is recalled in the tradition of the so-called 'Shepherd's Plaid' or 'maud' which in the 19th Century was absorbed along with other pre-existing setts by a creative and vigorous wool textile weaving industry into its rapidly expanding lists of tartans to be associated with specific families and clans, both Lowland and Highland. Boosted by an insatiable market and the researches between about 1815 and 1845 of the Highland Society of London, James Logan and the self-styled Sobieski Stuarts, manufacturers such as Wilsons of Bannockburn began to differentiate and label the ever-increasing selection of setts as separate clan tartans. Highland dress and tartan rapidly became therefore an indicator of belonging both to the larger entity of nation and to a smaller community of kin and clan. In that era of a new and excitable historical consciousness, the origins of tartan and its use of colour and pattern was no more or less than a form of Highland fashion and conspicuous consumption.
Highland dress derived from forms of mantle or cloak in medieval dress, then not obviously differentiated by nation or culture in Europe. The mantle was more common in northern and western regions where it supplied an ideal and often extravagant protective overdress which sparse material evidence suggests was made in a twill weave to give colour and pattern and a tight weatherly finish. Two contemporary descriptions suggest a local style emerging with a strong note of a fashion consciousness in the Gaidhealtachd. In his History of Scotland of 1578, Bishop John Lesley wrote: 'All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort, except that the nobles preferred those of several colours.' George Buchanan, himself a Highlander by descent, described in 1582 how 'they delight in mottled clothes especially that have long stripes of sundry colours; they love chiefly purple and blue'. Fashion in the Highlands dictated that the 'mantle' evolved into the lighter but longer and highly coloured 'plaid', novel but still in a universal tradition of the untailored garment such as the toga, sari or clerical habit; artfully arranged round the body, this was a versatile dress and distinction and effect was added by quantity and quality of cloth, colour and by style of wear. Though remote from metropolitan centres, Highlanders were perfectly well informed and this conspicuous style of Highland dress belonged to a new heightened European dress sense of the late Renaissance. Trade brought goods as well as ideas into the Highlands and Islands and contemporary Gaelic song makes it clear that luxury fabrics and dyestuffs were eagerly acquired. Madder from Rotterdam and Hamburg and later cochineal from Central America gave expensive but exciting and colourfast shades of red and it is no coincidence that panegyric poetry in Gaelic consistently characterises tartan or breacan in terms of bright scarlets and flaming reds.
The Highlander in plaid and kilt had by the 18th Century become equated with continuing loyalty to the Stewart dynasty in exile, a concept exploited by Prince Charles Edward Stewart in 1745 when he landed in the West Highlands and raised an emphatically tartan army. Response was swift and catastrophic for Highland life and culture, and the Disarming Act of 1747 which, while outlawing it, neatly defined Highland dress as 'Plaid, Philabeg or little kilt, Trews, Shoulder Belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb'. Prohibition failed to eradicate Highland dress and Boswell's description of Allan MacDonald of Kinsborough in 1773 hints at the persistence of the imperative of taste and fashion in adversity:
'He was quite the figure of a gallant Highlander. ... He had his tartan plaid thrown about him, a large blue bonnet with a knot of black ribbon like a cockade, a brown short coat of a kind of duffle, a tartan vest with gold buttonholes, a bluish filibeg, and tartan hose.'
With this portrait, a seminal image of Scotland in the 17th Century, Wright set a standard for all aspiring 'gallant Highlanders'.
We are grateful to Dr Duncan Thomson, and Hugh Cheape of the National Museums of Scotland, for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.