The Mystery of the Artist(s)

Inscription on the frame

The oil painting of Parliament Close (hereafter identified in Italics as the Painting) is undated and unsigned and very little is known about its provenance.  The records of the Edinburgh City Art Gallery state that it was acquired in 1948 from the Whitson Bequest, but nothing is known of its previous ownership. The frame in which it is mounted has the following inscription ‘The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh about the end of the Eighteenth Century.  The joint production of Sir David Wilkie, Alexander Nasmyth, David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield and others.’

An engraving of the Painting was made in 1844 by John Le Conte from an etching by Thomas Dobbie and published by Hugh Paton and Sons. (Paton was also publisher of Kay’s Portraits – see below) The legend reads ‘The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh fifty years since.  The original picture is the possession of Robert Bryson RSE.  The Figures painted by Sir David Wilkie, Alexander Fraser and William Kidd.  The Architecture and Landscape by David Roberts and John Wilson etc.’ 

It is absurd to imagine that such a galaxy of distinguished artists should have been involved in the production of the Painting.  The additions of ‘and others’ and ‘etc’ surely indicates that the actual artist(s) were unknown to the writers of the inscriptions and that they were merely trying to ensure that all possibilities had been considered.  Of the identifiable figures in the Square, fifty-one are copies of characters drawn and engraved by John Kay and nine are copies of paintings by David Allan and yet these, whose names have not been mentioned, are the only artists who can be positively linked with the Painting

When was it painted?

The possible artists could be whittled down if the date of the Painting could be established. The legend to the engraving of 1844 states that the original Painting was of Parliament Close ‘fifty years since’, i.e. about 1794, and this date can be fixed with reasonable accuracy from details in the Painting.  The Goldsmith Hall, which is intact in the picture, burnt down in January 1796 and was not rebuilt. The shops in the picture and many of the identifiable characters in the Close can be dated from that period, although several of the characters appeared later in the Edinburgh scene in the early nineteenth century.  From the evidence available there are two possibilities concerning the date of the Painting, either it was painted on site about 1794 and some of the details were added at a later date, or the entire Painting was made subsequently from memory or from images of the past.  This second possibility seems most unlikely given the wealth of detail in the Painting which had disappeared by the early years of the nineteenth century. 

Robert Bryson 1778-1852

Robert Bryson is recorded in the legend to the engraving as being the owner of the Painting in 1844. Bryson was a successful watchmaker and one of the founders of what is now the Heriot-Watt University.  He was born in 1788 and just a child during the period which the Painting illustrates so he would have had scant memory of the Square as it was then.  Although the Square was the centre of watch making at that time, Bryson never had a shop there – he opened his first shop further east in the High Street in 1810 and moved to 66 Princes Street in 1840.  It is possible that he purchased the Painting when it came on the market in 1836 (see below) for its artistic merit or its historic interest.  His ownership therefore does not help to fix the date of the Painting.

Of the seven artists whose names have been linked with the Painting, David Roberts (1796-1864) and William Kidd (1796-1863) had not been born in 1794; Alexander Fraser (1785-1865) and David Wilkie (1785-1861) would have been only nine years old; Clarkson Stansfield (1793-1867) would have been one year old.  John Wilson (1774-1855) would have been twenty, but his genre was seascape and landscape.

Of these only Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) remains a possibility.  He would have been thirty-six years of age at that time.  His paintings of buildings in the vicinity of Parliament Square are very similar in style (see below).  David Wilkie, David Roberts and Clarkson Stansfield were his pupils but long afterwards. If it was painted at a later date most of the named artists were quite capable of painting it on their own.


Nasmyth: demolition of the Old Tolbooth (c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Other possible artists: David Allan and John Kay

Two other likely candidates, whose names have not previously been raised in this connection, are David Allan (1744-1796) and John Kay (1742-1826).  Allan would have been forty years old in 1794 – about the same age as Kay and like him he enjoyed painting Edinburgh’s street characters. Why John Kay has not been included among the possible artists is a complete mystery for it is a familiar observation that the majority of the identifiable characters in the painting are copies of his character sketches. Kay copied several of Allan’s character paintings and included them among his engravings, evidence that the two artists collaborated.  The Painting shows the view that he would have seen from his shop window in 10 Parliament Square, and 57 of the identifiable characters in the Square are copied from his engravings. Kay was expert in miniature portraiture and would have had no difficulty in reproducing his engravings in colour.

David Allan’s aquatint of the High Street

David Allan’s aquatint painting of the High Street looking west from the level of John Knox’s House

In 1793 Allan made an aquatint painting of the High Street looking west from near his home in Dickson’s Close. This painting, which is contemporary with the possible date of the Painting (1794), shows in the distance the Tron Kirk, the east aspect of St Giles and the Luckenbooths obstructing the High Street. Seven of the characters seen in Allan’s High Street appear also in the Painting – the chimney sweeps, the town officer reading a proclamation, the town drummers, the city porter (in the bottom left corner) and the water carrier.  Copies of other character paintings by Allan of the sedan chairmen, the salt seller and the Newhaven fishwife also appear in the Painting – surely evidence of his involvement. 

Extract from Allan’s High Street and the same view today. The wooden steeple of the Tron Kirk which was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1824 has been replaced by a taller stone built steeple and the Luckenbooths which were obstructing the High Street in Allan’s painting have been removed.

Examples of David Allan and John Kay’s collaboration in the Painting

IMAGES IN THE PAINTING WHICH ARE EXCLUSIVELY BY ALLAN

IMAGE EXCLUSIVELY BY KAY

The Painting showing Allan’s figures identified with white dots and Kay’s with blue dots.

Allan’s characters are mostly distributed around the periphery of the Square leaving the foreground for Kay

Three of Allan’s character studies which are reproduced in the Painting – the sedan chairmen, the chimney sweeps (tron men) and the Newhaven fishwife – were copied by John Kay, or his son William. These are included without acknowledgement in Kay’s Portraits – an indication that the two men must have shared their interest. The two lived within a few yards of each other, Kay on the north side of the High Street and Allan on the south side in Dickson’s Close, and must have met frequently. 

In his High Street acquatint, Allan has included the name J Kay on the front of the second floor tenement in Bailie Fyfe’s Close[i] where Kay was living at that time. It is most unlikely that Kay actually had his name inscribed there when his business was in Parliament Square – could Allan have used artistic licence to draw attention to a friend and collaborator? 

The same subject by David Allan (L) and John Kay (R). The characters are different but the similarities of concept suggest awareness of each other’s work. Note the dog in Allan’s painting – this is a feature in many of his works. The figure on the right of Allan’s painting is the explorer James Bruce (1730-1794) who was brought up in Kinnaird, near Allan’s home in Alloa, and the two may well have known each other there. They met again in Rome in 1763 when Bruce was travelling on his way to Africa. The painting which they are examining is an engraving of Raphael’s St John the Bapist as a boy. (Uffizi Gallery)

I would suggest that David Allan and John Kay were the artists of The Painting. Allan did several paintings in the vicinity of St Giles at the same period. Here is one of his paintings done from the roof of St Giles looking west up the High Street. He would have had no difficulty in painting the buildings surrounding the Square.

Could this painting have influenced David Allan?

The ‘Facciata’ of Cardinal York

This painting of the Palazzo del Re shows the home of the exiled Stuart Court in Rome on the occasion of a festa to celebrate the installation of Prince Henry as Cardinal York. The painting is owned by and currently displayed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It is of large size measuring 2 by 3 meters.

Before discussing the possible significance of this painting it is necessary to digress briefly to give an account of the movements of the Stuart royal family. The Stuart dynasty, which had ruled over Scotland for 200 years and over England since the Union of Crowns in 1603, was forced into exile after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when the protestant Dutch William III replaced the Catholic James VII and II. The deposed Stuarts were welcomed in France by Louis XIV who lent them the Chateau-Vieux de Saint-Germain-en-Laye which became the Jacobite Court for twenty-five years. James II died there in 1701 and his son, Prince James Francis Edward Stuart aged thirteen, became recognised as King James III by the French Court.

In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht, which marked the end of the the War of Spanish Succession was signed. One of the conditions obliged France to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Protestant succession in Britain. This was counter to the aspirations of the Stuarts who no longer felt welcome in France. In 1717 they moved to Rome where they were welcomed by Pope Clement XI who regarded James Francis Edward Stuart and his wife Maria Clementina Sobieska, as the legitimate King James III and Queen of England Scotland and Ireland. The Pope arranged for the Stuart Court to be accommodated in the splendid Palazzo Muti, renamed the Palazzo del Re, during the occupancy by the Stuart Court which lasted for forty seven years. Both Prince Charles Edward and his brother Prince Henry (Duke of York) were born there and there James III died in 1766 and Prince Charles in 1788.

The Palazzo del Re became a favorite meeting place for Scots while in Rome and provided many of the services of an embassy and was used as such by visiting Grand Tourists whether Protestant, Catholic, Hanoverian or Jacobite.

The Stuarts commissioned many portrait paintings of themselves during their exile in France and Italy. These portraits, done by many local artists, were copied and engraved to be distributed to inspire and sustain loyalty among their many Jacobite supporters in Britain and the Continent. Richard Sharp in the Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement (1996) gives a detailed and scholarly account these portraits and the means by which they were distributed to the eager recipients. Several of these paintings and engravings are on display in the Stuart collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The painting of the Palazzo del Re is one of these. It shows a festa to celebrate the appointment in 1747 of Prince Henry Stuart (aged 22) as a cardinal, known as Cardinal York. This momentous occasion marked the effective end of the Stuarts struggle for recognition in their own country for the Act of Settlement of 1701 prevented the future creation of a Catholic monarchy.

Edward Corp (Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History 15 pp 33-8) gives a detailed account of the painting. It was entitled The ‘Facciata’ of Cardinal York and was comissioned by Prince Henry himself in 1748. Three artists were paid for the work, one named Pubalacci, of whom nothing is known, painted the buildings and Paolo Monaldi and Silvestri who painted the figures. Monaldi was known for his paintings of low life figures. Silvestri may have been Louis de Silvestre, a French artist, Director of the Academie Royale de Peinture. The painting cost 1925 livres and was by far the most expensive of the portraits commissioned by the Stuarts being more the three times the cost of the next most expensive painting The baptism of Prince Charles (1725).

The painting was displayed to the public in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the office in Rome of the Papal chancery, and Roman base of Cardinal York after his appointment as vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church in 1753.

Details from the painting.

Although the buildings in the painting have been decorated for the occasion, this prominent feature on the roof of the Palazzo looks far too elaborate to be just a temporary decoration. It shows three coats of arms. On the left is that of Great Britain after the Union of the Crowns of James I and VI, with the lion rampant of England and the unicorn of Scotland. The right hand coat of arms is that of Rome and in the centre is the coat of arms of Pope Benedict XIV. Perhaps it was a permanent feature of the Palazzo recognizing the important status of the occupants

Detail showing James III in a blue coat wearing the blue sash and star of the Order of the Garter facing his son in the clothing of a cardinal.

Cardinal York 1725-1807 served his church well during his long life, becoming Dean of the College of Cardinals. He was created Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati in 1761 and lived in Frascati, a township about 10 miles from Rome, in the Villa Muti – his favourite residence, commuting regularly to perform his duties at the Basilica in Rome, until his death.

Sir Walter Scott visited the Villa Muti in Frascati during his tour of Italy in 1831 and was interested to see the Palazzo del Re painting which had been moved to this location following the Cardinal’s death in 1807. Scott thought that he could identify the face of Cameron of Lochiel among the crowd of adherents. (I G Brown Frolics in the Face of Europe p165). The fact that this painting was still in the residence of the Cardinal, even though it was 24 years after his death, suggests that the painting of this most important event in his life had been a treasured memento.

L. Cardinal York 1747 by Domenico Corvi. R.Villa Muti at Frascati, Cardinal York and Pope Pius VII greeting King Charles Emmanual IV of Sardinia.

David Allan spent thirteen years in Rome from 1764-1777 studying art and copying paintings of the Italian masters. He was certainly familiar with the exiled Stuarts for he sketched Cardinal York at his daily devotions in St Peters in 1773.

Cardinal York at his daily devotion in St Peters in Rome by David Allan (National Gallery of Scotland)

It is highly probable that Allan would have seen the Palazzo del Re painting during his long sojourn in the City. There are so many similarities with the Parliament Square Painting that it raises the possibility that Allan may have had this picture in mind when involved with the Painting.

The central figures in the two paintings are closely related. In the Rome painting the focus is on James III, the nephew of Charles II, whose equestrian statue is prominent in the Edinburgh painting. In both paintings there are beggars, drummers and bands of soldiers but the most interesting coincidence is the appearance in both of groups engaged in a fight observed by dogs.

The L image is from the Palazzo painting. It is in a rather dark corner but the aggression is unmistakable. The R image is from the Parliament Square painting and shows a group of men and boys engaged in a fight. This bizarre feature suggests strongly that an artist was familiar with both works. David Allan was possibly the only artist who would have had the opportunity of being familiar with both paintings. Is it not a possibility that he carried a memory of the Rome painting with him on his return to Edinburgh?

In 1793 Allan did a another acquatint of the High Street showing a view to the east from the level of Parliament Square. It shows a procession of the Commissioners going to the Annual Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In the bottom left corner there is an image of a fight taking place in a coach, curiously ignored by the adjacent guardsmen and by the dog. This feature – so out of place in the context – may be yet another example of Allan’s interest in including a fight and a dog in some of his paintings and another link between Allan and the Painting of Parliament Square.

Drawing by Allan of the Piazza Navona in Rome during a carnival (c1775). The arrangement of figures and their activities has similarities with the Parliament Square Painting. (Royal Collection)

Completion of the Painting after Allan’s death

It is conceivable that Allan was working on the Painting at the time of his early death in 1796 and that the work was passed on to his friend and neighbour, John Kay, to be finished.

Kay dated most of his engravings and of the 57 which appear in the Painting, only 25 were produced before 1794 – the presumed date of the commencement of the Painting. The rest were produced at irregular intervals up to 1815 (the last being Lauchlan McBain). Only Kay would have had possession of all these engravings before they were published in 1838. It seems logical therefore to suppose that Kay must have had access to the Painting and added figures during this period. Indications of repeated intervention by Kay are shown in the engravings of Samuel McDonald and George Cranstoun.

There is evidence that the Painting came into Kay’s possession for in the Catalogue of his effects which were sold after the death of his widow in 1836, item 32 listed is Old Church with Figures which might well be the Painting.

Extract from the Catalogue of Kay’s effects

At the same sale all of Kay’s engraved plates, from which his caricatures were printed, were purchased by the publisher, Hugh Paton. These enabled him to produce his massive two volume Portraits and Caricature Etchings of the late John Kay (1838). It may well be that it was at this sale that Robert Bryson obtained the Painting.

Who painted the Painting and the date of its execution remain unsolved.  My inclination is that it was painted over a period of time from c1794 to 1815 by John Kay and David Allan – the only two artists who can with certainty, be linked with the painting. Only Kay would have had access to all the character engravings during this period, for the complete set of his engravings was not generally available until Paton’s publication in 1838. It would have been very difficult for artists fifty years later to recall the immense amount of architectural detail shown in the painting – details which became much altered over the years. Parliament Hall was transformed by the building of a new frontage by Robert Reid from 1810, the Old Tolbooth and the shops adhering to the walls of St Giles disappeared in 1817 and the east side of the Square was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1824.  Nevertheless a painting at a later date by any one or more of the artists whose names have been suggested remains a possibility.  Unless some hard evidence is forthcoming, however, the identity of the artist(s) and the date of the painting must remain a matter of speculation but I believe that the evidence favouring Allan and Kay is strong.


[i] At that time house numbers had not been allocated in the Old Town.  Bailey Fyfe’s Close corresponds to about 87 High St today (about 50 yards west of John Knox’s House).  This was Kay’s address given in the 1792 Edinburgh Street Directory. At the time of his death in 1826 Kay’s address was 227 High St. which is marked with a recently installed memorial plaque.