We are not amused: Kenneth MacLeay – Queen Victoria’s Highlanders of Scotland

We are not amused: The artist who dared to disobey Queen Victoria – Kenneth MacLeay Watercolours

In June 1864, the Scottish painter Kenneth Macleay painted a portrait of Queen Victoria’s sons, Princes Alfred, Arthur and Leopold.

Pleased with the picture, she commissioned Macleay to paint a miniature of Prince Alfred, then 19, based on his depiction in the portrait.

But she believed there was room for improvement, and asked for several alterations for the miniature, specifically that Prince Alfred’s tie be changed from white to black.

After originally accommodating the queen’s wishes, Macleay decided he was not happy with the black tie, and repainted the portrait with a white tie.

He despatched the watercolour on ivory miniature to Queen Victoria on August 4, 1864, accompanied with a letter explaining why he had disobeyed her request.

He wrote: “ ... it would quite spoil it to put it in a Black Handkerchief – in which opinion The President & all the members of the Royal Scottish Academy who have seen it, entirely concur, I have left it white.”

The Queen was not amused. On receiving the portrait, she returned it to Macleay with a handwritten note: “The Queen does not like this miniature as well as the original and she wishes Mr Macleay to alter it by and large.”

It is not known why she insisted on the black tie, but the portrait, which depicts Prince Alfred wearing the Order of the Thistle and a plaid secured to his shoulder with a silver brooch, was completed two years after the death of Prince Albert, and she may have wished her family to be portrayed as still in mourning.

The portrait and letters, normally kept in private quarters at Windsor Castle, will go on display for the first time next month as part of the Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, which is being held to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Deborah Clarke, curator of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, said: “Queen Victoria paid very close attention to the smallest details of the works she commissioned.

“Artistic differences appear not to have been tolerated, and she clearly expected people to follow her instructions and not make their own minds up about what looked best.”

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Kenneth MacLeay RSA RSW - 1802 - 1878

MacLeay was born in Oban and was involved in the founding of the RSA. He made his reputation with portraits painted in watercolour. These varied in size from miniatures printed on ivory of paper, to large full-length photographs of Highland Chiefs. He worked for the Royal family producing a series of watercolours of the Highland clans later published as Highlanders of Scotland (1870). He also painted Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Balmoral. A fine draughtsman, MacLeay was adept at capturing not only the sitter's likeness but also details of clothing and jewellery.
kenneth macleay
Kenneth MacLeay

The original water colours are owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and are held in the library of Windsor Castle. Prints are available from The Scottish Tartans Authority - STA Website.