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11 Sep 2020

Tartan in art

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North, National Trust for Scotland
A portrait of a young woman sitting in front of a woodland backdrop. She wears a long white dress and a tartan plaid wrapped over her head and shoulders.
It’s a wrap – Elizabeth Brodie, wife of the 5th Duke of Gordon by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780–1860), c1813
We take a look at a much-admired portrait and discover the hidden meanings behind the use of tartan in art.

This portrait of Elizabeth Brodie may well have been her marriage portrait. Born in 1794, she was the daughter of Alexander Brodie and his wife, Margaret. She married General George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon in 1813. This portrait is paired with one of her husband which is also at Brodie Castle, painted by the same artist. Elizabeth and George are both seated in a similar landscape. However, whilst the Duke is painted in the casual attire of a country gentleman complete with shotgun and faithful spaniel at his knee, Elizabeth is portrayed very differently.

We should not be distracted by the colour of her Empire-style gown denoting her marriage, since in Georgian times white was worn to denote high social status. Elizabeth was the 5th Duchess of Gordon and certainly enjoyed this distinction; she went on to serve Queen Adelaide in the royal court of William IV. Her gown is ethereal and delicate with exquisite lace edging the sleeves and hemline. What is extraordinary is the voluminous plaid shawl, worn as a cloak in the style of a clanswoman of the mid-18th century. This romantic affectation evokes family links to the Highland clans. The plaid is all-encompassing, covering the back of her head; its multi-purpose function was designed to do just this. It could be used to wrap around the whole body like a blanket if needed, or it could be arranged as a sash or shawl.

Of course, the cloth is the Gordon tartan, woven in distinctive blues and greens, and symbolises that Elizabeth Brodie has literally taken on the mantle of the Gordon family by her marriage. It is a Romantic painting, in the landscape and symbolism as well as in its subject. The title of the portrait tells us that Elizabeth is the wife of the 5th Duke of Gordon. However, as the wedding took place on 11 December 1813, the use of the name ‘Brodie’ in the title might suggest that the portrait slightly anticipated the marriage itself.

The National Trust for Scotland has recently entered into a partnership with modern tartan maker Prickly Thistle. They have designed two exclusive tartans for the Trust, to help raise funds for our Save Our Scotland appeal.

Buy the Save Our Scotland tartan now

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