MacNeill on Guthrie, 'The Material Culture of the Jacobites'

Neil Guthrie
Máire MacNeill

Neil Guthrie. The Material Culture of the Jacobites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xviii + 268 pp. $108.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-04133-2.

Reviewed by Máire MacNeill (Independent Scholar) Published on H-War (May, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Glassware, coins, medals, prints, and books: the different objects used to venerate the Jacobite cause during the eighteenth century are a motley collection, representing at various times the political, romantic, or commercial interests of their manufacturers and owners. Neil Guthrie’s The Material Culture of the Jacobites is not merely a catalogue of illicit commodities; rather, it also investigates how these objects have been used historically to both “construct and express a corporate identity” and “function in relation to an often intensely private sense of the individual” (p. 6). By reading Jacobite history through the objects to which it is connected, we are able to uncover something of its sympathizers’ fluctuating beliefs over the centuries. There is “a sense that the sheer physicality of objects gives them their power” (p. 7); a material proof of the validity of the Jacobite claim, and the conviction felt by its sympathizers.

Through Guthrie’s work, objects identified with the Jacobite cause emerge as symbols in a clandestine language, once comprehensible only to the most loyal disciples, before being deciphered and reinterpreted by later collectors. This second category includes those interested in objects connected to a romantic “Lost Cause,” and (in the case of the many royal accumulators from George IV to Elizabeth II) those with “an urge to render political symbols merely art … or … curios that could be locked in a cabinet or put, literally and figuratively, on the shelf” (p. 148). Glassware decorated with symbols of a sun, star, or oak tree (traditional Stuart icons), or an engraving of a woman described only as a “Polish lady” (in reality James Francis Edward Stuart’s wife, Maria Clementina of Poland), or, most elaborately, a portrait of Charles Edward Stuart disguised as smears of paint on a board: all of these were secret Jacobite tokens of support during the eighteenth century that became the prize collectibles of enthusiastic hobbyists in the nineteenth.

The real risk of being accused of treason for producing, trading, or owning objects in support of the Jacobite cause helps to explain why many adherents preferred to keep them surreptitiously during the early part of the period. Although most charges were brought up as misdemeanors, worthy of a lighter punishment (p. 21), the fear of public prosecution and scandal meant that many objects were stored away in private locations or disguised using established symbols and deliberate mislabeling for their owners to express their esteem for their “Sacred Majesty.” Yet the secrecy of those who owned and produced Jacobite objects presents a problem for considering their provenance, complicated by the small industry of reproduction medals, prints, and glassware which boomed in the nineteenth century—not all of it manufactured with honest intentions. A short but fascinating subsection of Guthrie's book titled “Remakes, fakes and honest mistakes” draws upon Peter Francis’s alarming suggestion “that the authenticity of all Jacobite glass is questionable” (p. 140). Although Guthrie convincingly argues against Francis’s concerns, this contention does illustrate the extent to which Jacobite history has been raveled and reconstrued across the centuries through the exploitation of its material culture, to the point where it is now difficult to discern the genuine artifacts of eighteenth-century sentiment.

Even those objects that can be dated with more certainty have some mystery about them. Two hoards of Jacobite medalets were found buried in London in 1865 after being hidden for over a century and a half, covered in verdigris but with the symbols of the young Prince James Francis Edward still clear. Produced in Paris in 1697 and smuggled into England, numerous unknowns persist: Were they manufactured for a specific purpose? Who brought them into the country? Who buried them in London, and why? No information has survived to answer these questions; all that remains are the objects themselves. Likewise, it can be difficult to gauge the scope of Jacobite networks in the eighteenth century and the scale of production of objects relating to the cause; Guthrie uses the example of Jacobite pincushions woven in France during the 1740s to suggest a web that reached across Europe. Yet when considering working-class sympathizers, whose possessions were more likely to have been “cheaply made, not intended to last, more likely to be knocked about” (p. 124), it is more difficult to ascertain the spread of objects and ideas. All the historian may do is make some reasonable deductions on the information available; as Guthrie concludes, the magnitude of Jacobite networks and production scales may be judged by “the relative frequency with which one encounters Jacobitiana today” (p. 125).

Although genuine support for regime change in favor of James II and his descendants of the male line likely peaked in the eighteenth century, the history of Jacobite sentiment is not without its complexities. As Guthrie notes, “the Jacobite creed had not only its true believers … but also those who were agnostic or selective in their response to it” (p. 114); Alexander Pope is one early, prominent figure whose works have been scrutinized for Jacobite content both during his lifetime and afterward, but his sympathies never approached the level of activism. Nor did partisan feeling die out entirely after the defeat at Culloden. Of course, the viability of a Jacobite ascendency lacked clout after the 1760s, as memories of the '45 began to fade and a third Hanoverian monarch began his rule, and aficionados of Jacobite objects were increasingly those who had a nostalgic or historical (rather than political) interest in the cause. However, the emergence of neo-Jacobitism in the late nineteenth century, particularly in the founding of the Order of the White Rose, had the central aim of “nothing less than the actual restoration of the senior descendant of the [Jacobite] dynasty” (p. 157). With public exhibitions showcasing rings, fragments of kilts, and locks of hair once belonging to Charles Edward Stuart and his close followers, the neo-Jacobites hastened to employ their material heritage to verify their beliefs.

The public exhibitions, the first of which occurred in the 1850s, demonstrate how openly Jacobite objects could be displayed by the nineteenth century. Spaces identifiable as Jacobite existed at least as early as the 1730s; Guthrie discusses “modifications of the landscape, whether through building or gardening” (p. 130) to reflect Jacobite sympathies, as well as the interior decoration within Jacobite houses, such as a ceiling in Lullingstone Castle that contains a secret message to Jacobite supporters. Yet in these cases, sentiments were expressed through the codes and signs familiar to the cause, or employed in private spaces. The nineteenth-century exhibitions openly displayed Jacobite objects which “no longer posed any real threat … or, perhaps, as part of the very process by which the winning side rendered its opposition harmless” (p. 144). In the mainstream, partisan expression had attracted those with antiquarian or romantic interests. By the twentieth century, these interests were being exploited for full commercial profit. Of particular interest is Guthrie’s brief look at the Drambuie Liqueur Company’s use of Charles Edward Stuart’s image within their marketing—a decision based on ideas of Scottishness that are “more Braveheart than Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Guthrie argues (p. 163), probably correctly, as national and international knowledge of Jacobitism ever fades.

The Material Culture of the Jacobites is illustrated throughout with black-and-white photographs of the objects discussed, and one wishes that Cambridge University Press had provided images in color. The photograph on the book’s front cover of a c.1745 dice box showing an image of Charles Edward Stuart, the illustration of the young prince in red and green tartan contrasting boldly against the dark background from which he emerges, is a tantalizing hint at what could have been. Indeed, too often are objects described without any photographic reference. An allusion to “jewellery of treason” (a phrase Guthrie borrows from jewelry historian Diana Scarisbrick) was particularly intriguing (p. 126), but no examples were offered, leaving it unclear what exactly they looked like.

Through an analysis of the objects and symbols associated with the Jacobite cause, and the uses to which they have been put over the past three centuries, The Material Culture of the Jacobites enables the modern reader to consider the multilayered history of their acquisition and function, for both the individual and the wider culture. Guthrie's work offers not only a concise overview of the variety of different objects, but also several exciting springboards from which to launch new research into Jacobite culture.

Citation: Máire MacNeill. Review of Guthrie, Neil, The Material Culture of the Jacobites. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019. URL:

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