Elite Identities in Scottish Family Group Portraits, 1740 - 1790

  • Helen Whiting

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis considers the interrelation between gender, national identity and elite family life in Scotland between 1740 and 1790. Family group portraits painted by Scottish artists of Scottish families are examined and contrasted with English counterparts to demonstrate the evolving nature of Scottish identity as performed in the domestic sphere in the period under consideration. The principal primary sources used are family portraits, alongside letters and other archival material and contemporaneous printed texts.

In the first section (chapters 1–3) the centrality of dynasty as an on-going elite concern will be established and the role that portraiture played in establishing, asserting and maintaining dynastic claims and elite status are revealed. As is shown, this concern was shared by aristocrats, gentry, the merchant and intellectual elite. The idea is introduced that the ‘family group portrait’ does not necessarily simply exist in one frame but may be depicted across several canvases, nevertheless conceived as a coherent whole, and shows that they were intended to interact with the building in which they were hung. The notion that conversation pieces, notable for their informal presentation of family relations, represented a shift in attitude to the importance of lineage and primogeniture will be questioned. A close reading of these portraits shows that old concerns of propriety, gendered roles and dynastic concerns remain central to the conversation piece. In the second section (chapters 4–6), the focus will move from the family as a whole to particular familial relations; nuptial, maternal and paternal. In each case, the correlation between these domestic relationships and the political affairs of Scotland, be that the Jacobite cause or Enlightenment, will be revealed. The chapter on motherhood will highlight that, while patrons commissioned portraits of sentimental motherhood, old concerns of lineage were deeply embedded within these. The matter of fatherhood is one that had been, until recently, rather overlooked by scholars and the chapter dedicated to it in this thesis highlights the centrality of paternity to elite Scottish masculinity.

This thesis will demonstrate the centrality of gender to the depiction of elite family life and examine the peculiarly Scottish nature of these pictorial performances. In so doing the thesis offers a contribution to the history of gender and family life in Scotland.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsArts & Humanities Research Council & Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities
SupervisorChristopher Whatley (Supervisor) & Mary Modeen (Supervisor)


  • gender
  • portraiture
  • Scotland
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Family

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