It wouldn’t be a birthday without embarrassing baby pictures...

15th Aug 2018

Like many of us, Scott was not terribly enthusiastic about growing old. In his diary, he remarked disapprovingly that ‘the outside of my head is waxing grizzled but I cannot find that the snow has coold my brain or my heart.’

Many of us reach a point in life when we feel that the inside just doesn’t match the outside anymore and that the demands on our time have impacted negatively on our lifestyle, forcing us to make unwanted sacrifices. The writer later followed up his comments on this issue in a letter to his eldest son, remarking humorously that his increasing lack of exercise and long hours chained to his desk had resulted in him getting ‘as fat as a Norway seal’!

So, instead of celebrating Scott’s 247th with this grizzled seal in the forefront of our minds, Collections and Intepretation Manager Kirsty turns back the clock. We all know, it wouldn’t be a proper birthday celebration without embarrassing baby pictures…

It’s often hard for us to picture the great men and women of the past as infants or children; their deeds and achievements are often so weighty that imagining them as helpless or vulnerable seems a bit foolish. Through the engravings of his portraits that appeared in illustrated editions of Scott’s novels and poetry, the reading public became familiar with the face of Sir Walter. Alongside the Duke of Wellington, he was the most painted private individual of his time. After his death, sculptures sprung up across the western world that gave that face a three-dimensional reality, running in tandem with the burgeoning cult of the portrait bust by Francis Chantrey, the original copy of which Scott’s descendants had moved to the ‘altar’ position in Abbotsford’s Library.

restoration, collection

The Bath Miniature - showing Scott aged five

There are very few known depictions of Scott in his youth, either posthumously or painted in his lifetime. The earliest known portrait thought to exist was known as the ‘Bath miniature,’ attributed to Abraham Daniels. This watercolour on ivory shows Scott in profile with flowing strawberry-blonde hair and an open collar. Abbotsford holds a copy of this miniature but not the original; this was given to Andrew Watson by Scott’s mother, Anne Rutherford, and eventually made its way into the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, exhibited in 1871 and 1932 for major centenary exhibitions of Scott’s birth and death respectively. In this portrait Scott looks strikingly mature for a boy of only five, the eyes speaking volumes of his self-assurance and sharp mind.

Imagine my surprise when I received communication from an art agent suggesting that a client of theirs had a portrait of Scott aged four in their possession. I couldn’t quite believe it. This little gem had remained under the radar for all these years of portraiture study on Scott. There seems to be a clear reason for this: the work seems to have been displayed to the public just once, way back in 1835 at the British Institution or Pall Mall Picture Galleries, an exclusive exhibition ordinarily reserved for society elites. One can only assume that after that point the miniature remained quietly in private hands until it surfaced at auction just a few years ago.

Miniature portrait of a four-year-old Scott

The young Scott wears a coat of sage green, an ivory waistcoat and frilled chemise. His dapper hat, rather large for his head, is my favourite thing about the image, save for his arresting eyes which have the greyish blue hue of the sea. He looks quite the precocious and self-assured little boy that comes across so clearly in the author’s own memoirs of his early life, and facially there is a great deal of synergy between this image and the picture by Daniels. The artist, Richard Collins, was based in London, and so the portrait was presumably commissioned whilst the young boy was staying in the capital with his aunt Jenny, en-route to the healing waters of Bath. The little leather travelling case with velvet insert is presumably a later addition, but the bookish form could not be a more perfect way to keep the portrait of a writer safe from harm.

This miniature is simply full of character and charm, and I’m delighted to be able to share it with our visitors in conjunction with Scott’s 247th birthday. We’re exceptionally lucky that its current owners have been kind enough to allow The Abbotsford Trust to borrow this tiny treasure, and to display it for the public to enjoy for the next three months. You can see the portrait in our Visitor Centre Exhibition space from 15th August to the 30th November 2018.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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