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13 May 2019

Colonel Gordon goes wild and majestic in Edinburgh

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator (North), National Trust for Scotland
The portrait of Colonel William Gordon, painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1766. The tartan-clad Gordon stands with one hand on his hip, the other resting on his sword. There is a classical background.
Colonel William Gordon, Pompeo Batoni, 1766, Fyvie Castle
One of our most-celebrated and well-known paintings – Colonel William Gordon by Pompeo Batoni – will shortly be going on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

It will form part of an exciting exhibition entitled Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, which explores how Scotland was represented throughout the world, expressed through Highland and military dress, royal visits, art, literature and the beginnings of the Scottish tourism industry. It runs from 26 June–10 November 2019.

Dramatic Highland landscapes, heroic histories, tartan and bagpipes are among the defining images of Scotland for many people around the world today. This exhibition considers the origins of these ideas. Batoni’s now famous portrait is the epitome of this movement to romanticise all things Scottish and has been selected as the poster image for the exhibition.

Pompeo Batoni’s portrait of Colonel William Gordon (1736–1816) was painted in Rome in 1766, during the colonel’s Grand Tour of Europe. Batoni (1708–87) shows him wearing the uniform of the 105th Regiment of Foot but, looking closely, it’s clear that the artist has depicted the texture of his Huntly tartan plaid as silk, rather than wool. This suggests that he perhaps never saw actual tartan, and had to rely instead on descriptions or illustrations. Batoni cleverly transforms William Gordon into a Roman hero – a classicising style that was favoured by the artists and sculptors of the day and also pleased their aristocratic sitters, who regarded it as the height of fashion.

The leading portraitist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, explained: ‘He therefore who in his practice of portrait painting wishes to dignify his subject ... will not paint [him/] her in the modern dress ... He takes care that his work shall correspond to those ideas and that imagination which he knows will regulate the judgment of others; and therefore dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness ... The relish of the antique simplicity corresponds with what we may call the more learned and scientifick prejudice.

Close-up of the hilt of Gordon’s sword, showing thistles carved from metal and a red tassel, with a leather grip.
Colonel William Gordon’s sword

Gordon, swathed in toga-like tartan, stands before the ruins of the Colosseum. The Colonel is holding his sword, with which he famously threatened to quash a revolt in the Houses of Parliament in 1780, and is seen receiving an orb (a symbol of authority) and a laurel wreath of victory from the figure of Roma. The actual sword that’s illustrated has accompanied the painting to Edinburgh as part of the exhibition.

The wrapped portrait being carried by two men into the back of a lorry.
The colonel on the move!

The last time that the Batoni painting went on tour was just last year, when it was a major player at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum as part of the exhibition High Society: Four Centuries of Glamour. A few years before that, it was included in an exhibition in Monza, Italy. Batoni’s portrait of Gordon is regarded as the artist’s masterpiece and the highlight of the National Trust for Scotland’s art collection – it shines an international beacon on the continuing glamour and romance of Scotland.

The painting will return to Fyvie Castle in November.

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