Had she been born in a different century, one feels Helen Flockhart might have been a miniature painter, fashioning keepsakes of secret lovers and lost children. While her strange, sad portraits and mythical vignettes belong almost entirely to our own time, her highly finished, immaculate style would not be out of place in an earlier age. Perhaps this is why, in her latest body of work which is inspired by Mary, Queen of Scots, she seems so perfectly at home.
The bloody, romantic fairytale of Mary’s life seems ideally suited to Flockhart’s style, her mysterious, sad-eyed souls adrift in circumstances beyond their control. Mary, of course, is one of them, a woman of royal birth who, on account of her gender and her youth, became a pawn in other people’s dramas, shunted from marriage to marriage, from country to country, spending the last 20 years of her life as a prisoner.
This major sequence of paintings will transfer to Linlithgow Burgh Halls from 12 October to 20 January, near the palace where Mary was born. Flockhart paints her in portrait after portrait, complex expressions flitting over her pale face. She stands against Rousseau-esque dense foliage, with backgrounds full of symbolism: a split fig, a peeled lemon, eyes which glint among the leaves and – in one painting – a hand which seems to reach for her from behind. Mary was always watched and, one suspects, always watching.
Flockhart also paints imagined scenes from her life. The title painting of the show has Mary and her first husband, the Dauphin of France, married when they were respectively 15 and 14, lying together in a bed strewn with flowers, wed but still in childhood innocence and – one guesses, one hopes – happiness. In Rizzio, the Queen’s friend/lover is painted as the god Pan, while Mary flies, carefree, on a swing, and menacing dogs gather in the bushes. In Suffer or strike, Mary, just before her execution, waits in a darkened room in front of a blazing fire, prefiguring the bonfire used to destroy her belongings to stop them becoming political props in the hands of her supporters.
Flockhart clothes her in symbolism, too, sometimes in period ruffs and gowns textured with tiny brushstrokes, sometimes in fabric on which is printed scenes from her life or lines from her writings. In O Elizabeth, her hair is down and she wears a loose wrap-around dress, suspended between her time and ours. Clothes display her grandeur and restrict her movement, a woman whose supposed royal power meant she had no freedom of her own.