Work Case Studies Reflective Histories

Traquair House in the Scottish Borders

In March 2012 I was one of seven artists selected for a commission that was to focus on Traquair House, a historic building in the Scottish Borders. A partnership project between Traquair House and Edinburgh Printmakers, it was funded in part by ‘Year of Creative Scotland’ investment in 2012. The project aimed to foster the production of good quality site-specific contemporary artwork that responded to the historical context of Traquair and included an element of printmaking—expanding the definition and possibilities of print media. 

Gathering, details. Installation developed for Traquair commission.

Installation: Gathering 

On my first visit to Traquair I was struck by the juxtapositions of the public and private at the house. In particular I was drawn to the theme of concealment and secrecy. Gathering, my installation in the north terrace pavilion, was inspired by the Jacobites' use of moths and butterflies as symbols of loyalty.

I contacted Butterfly Scotland’s East Scotland branch organizer Barry Prater who kindly provided me with a list of moth species recorded in Peebleshire in 2011 and began by making life-size pen and ink drawings of a selection of moth species on the list. Using a special ‘security ink’ and bespoke rubber stamps made from my moth drawings I printed the pavilion interior. The ink used is invisible in everyday lighting conditions but when illuminated with violet light it fluoresces. ‘Invisible’ ink like this is routinely used on paper currency and security documents. The viewer powered and shone a dynamo black light torch at the walls in order to see the work and was only able to see a small part of the bigger picture at any given moment.

The installation alluded to the moth as a secret Jacobite symbol, adopting it in its broadest sense as a symbol of loyalty to a cause, developed in a climate where expressing that loyalty could result in death. The work highlighted a universal and timeless human habit of turning to flora and fauna for metaphor—moths, as delicate otherworldly creatures drawn to the light, suggestive of the powerful pull that faith and loyalty can exert on a life.

Development work for Mary, Queen of Scots portrait.

Co-published Print: Mary, Queen of Scots

 As part of the commission participating artists were required to create an edition of new work in print to be published by Edinburgh Printmakers. For the co-published print element of the Traquair project I was again drawn to the idea of the unseen.

Portraits at Traquair House

Using the conventions of the many portraits on display at Traquair—a sitter in front of a dark, neutral background bound by a rich gilt picture frame—I created a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in which an actual likeness is absent. I began by photographing the shoe attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots on display in Traquair’s museum room and digitally manipulated the imagery to create the illusion of a pair of shoes.

This process mirrored the inevitable editing and manipulation of information that occurs in portraiture, whether photographic, painted or written. It also reflects the way history is embellished and re-interpreted through time. A pair of shoes is something we are all familiar with—their regular fastening and unfastening something very human and everyday—and perhaps not the first thing we might expect to consider when looking at a portrait of a major historical figure.

Image of a pair of shoes created by manipulating digital photographs of a single shoe attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots.

I used the sizing and positioning of the shoes to communicate a sense of the wearer and her circumstances, aiming to create a presence with an absence. The glazed surface of the dark print in situ acted as a mirror, reflecting viewers back at themselves should they shift their gaze to read the surface of the glass. A person looking at this picture was effectively invited to project their own version of Mary, Queen of Scots into the frame.

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots above fireplace in the High Gallery at Traquair House. 


Edinburgh Printmakers
Traquair House 
Scotsman Review by Susan Mansfield