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23 May 2019

Lady Aberdeen’s print collection of celebrated Scottish women

Written by Heather Carroll, Collections Assistant
A collection of prints lining the walls in Haddo House’s South Quadrant
Lady Aberdeen’s collection of prints on display in Haddo House’s South Quadrant
Ishbel, 1st Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, is known for her advocacy of women’s rights. Her print collection at Haddo House demonstrates how she drew inspiration from Scottish women throughout history.

Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon is a formidable figure in 19th-century Scottish and Canadian history, known for her tenacity and dedication to social causes. Denied a higher education by her father, due to his opinion that women should not attend university, Ishbel devoted much of her life to fighting for women’s rights and social reform. She established various programmes and organisations that provided servants, women and the urban poor with access to education and healthcare. Her efforts were recognised during her lifetime, earning her the Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE). She was also the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree in Canada. Ishbel was dedicated to women’s suffrage and served twice as the President of the Women’s Liberal Federation, which would eventually evolve into the Liberal Democratic Party in 1988. In short, she was a politically astute woman who used her privileged position to fight for the betterment of others.

Full-length portrait of Ishbel, Countess of Aberdeen
Ishbel, Countess of Aberdeen, by George Sant, 1879

A tour through her rural Aberdeenshire home, Haddo House, reveals that Ishbel was inspired by many of the Scottish women who came before her, as well as her contemporaries. Sometime between 1893 and 1906, Ishbel amassed a collection of prints of Scottish women throughout history and wrote a short biography of each one. While staying in her London home, she sent all these prints to be framed uniformly, with each frame including typewritten biographies. The result is a collection of 36 historical prints and photographs which now hang in the ground floor of Haddo House. This display of powerful queens, politicians, aristocrats, social reformers, authors, artists and actors showcase the long history and achievements of Scotland’s most prominent women.

An 1847 etching of Flora MacDonald
An 1847 etching of Flora MacDonald, one of 36 prints in the collection

The collection includes an 1819 print of Margaret Tudor, Queen Consort of James IV of Scotland, who Ishbel describes as ‘haughty and magnificent; officiously active in affairs of state, capricious and obstinate’ – like her brother, Henry VIII. Dervorguilla of Galloway is also featured; she’s known by many in Dumfries as the namesake of the Devorgilla Bridge, which crosses the River Nith at Dumfries, and by those at Oxford University as a founder of Balliol College. Lady Anne Cunningham’s demure portrait disguises the fiery woman who led her troops on horseback to face her own son in 1639 at the Battle of Berwick. A photograph of Amelia Robertson Hill, whose sculpture of David Livingstone stands in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, is accompanied by Ishbel’s note of admiration for Hill’s technical skill and ability to break into the male-dominated art world of the 19th century.

The collection is also incredibly useful for resurrecting forgotten figures of history who were still known in Ishbel’s time. These include Anne Murray Keith, whose stories were retold by her friend Sir Walter Scott in some of his published works, and Mary Orrell Higginbotham, pioneer of district nursing in Scotland. Despite this careful and loving curation, the print collection was the project of an amateur art historian, so there are some mislabelled portraits. However, such errors allow us to reflect on Ishbel’s extensive knowledge and research achieved in spite of her limited access to resources. Cartes de visite and photographs of Ishbel’s contemporaries round off the collection. Individuals such as Beatrice Clugston, Elizabeth Pease Nichol and Louise Stevenson form a narrative of women who devoted themselves to ending worldwide slavery, fighting for women’s suffrage, and reforms for the poor, and were often able to do so by remaining unmarried.

The collection includes portraits of lesser known women from Scotland’s history such as Alice Rutherford, Susanna Blamire, Jeanie Elliot and Lady Anne Lindsay, pictured here in a single frame.
The collection includes portraits of lesser known women from Scotland’s history such as Alice Rutherford, Susanna Blamire, Jeanie Elliot and Lady Anne Lindsay, pictured here in a single frame.

Ishbel’s collection of prints not only allows us a unique insight into her values and goals but also provides us with a grand visual panorama of the rich history of women’s experience and achievements in Scotland.

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