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18 Jul 2019

The missing miniature: finding Jean Dempster – Newhailes

Written by Heather Carroll – Collections Assistant
An oval-shaped portrait miniature of a young woman. She has powdered white hair, which is piled on top of her head and fastened with a blue ribbon.
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Miss Christian Dalrymple is a fascinating figure from Scottish history. In the same period that Jane Austen wrote of women being left homeless after the death of a patriarch, Christian inherited Newhailes in her own right. Christian never married in the 46 years that she owned Newhailes, but her surviving diaries detail the emotional support she received from her friends. Likewise, they reveal that the value she placed on friendship was not limited to written sentiment; it can also be understood through objects that remain at Newhailes.

A name that appears frequently in the diaries is Mrs Jean Dempster, who shared a close friendship with Christian since their childhood. After a Hogmanay party at Newhailes in 1798, Jean started showing some worrying health symptoms; four months later she was dead. Her death took Christian by surprise, and to cope with her grief Christian purchased commemorative mourning objects: ordering hair lockets and commissioning a portrait-miniature from Anthony Stewart, a miniaturist in Edinburgh. Christian extensively detailed the commission process: documenting trips to Edinburgh, satisfactions on the posthumous portrait resembling her friend, and her impatience for the miniature to be finished.

Once complete, the miniature aided her in the grieving process and occasionally almost served as a substitute for Jean. In September 1798 she writes of having to part with Jean’s miniature much in the way she describes parting with friends: ‘Capt D [Jean’s husband] left us, taking away my beloved miniature of which he is very fond’. The following month she records that the miniature has been returned to her. When Christian describes the miniature in her diary, it is often accompanied by an adjective imbued with meaning, such as ‘beloved’, ‘much-valued’ or ‘precious’, indicating how special it was to her.

Despite being such an important item to Christian, after her death in 1839 the meaning behind Jean’s miniature was lost, and eventually so too was the miniature. However, thanks to the efforts of Project Reveal, the Jean Dempster miniature was found stowed in an old band box in a drawer. The recent resurfacing of the miniature allows us to not only see the object that Christian wrote so extensively about in her diary, but also, more meaningfully, the face of the woman so beloved by Newhailes’ former owner.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about the forgotten taverner of Gladstone’s Land and the life of Hannah Lorimer.

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