Mary & Elizabeth in Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens. Image by Bernt Rostad (http://bit.ly/princesstreetgardens), used under a Creative Commons license.

Princes Street Gardens. Image by Bernt Rostad (bit.ly/princesstreetgardens), used under a Creative Commons license.

Last night was the opening of the 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival, marked by a welcome dinner for participating artists from across the Commonwealth at the National Galleries of Scotland on the Mound.

As a prelude to the dinner, guests were invited to engage with Jacqueline Donachie’s intriguing installation ‘Mary and Elizabeth’ in Princes Street Gardens. This consists of two architectural sculptures representing the infamous sixteenth century Queens of Scotland and England. Mary takes her place in the post-war rain shelter below the floral clock in West Princes Street Gardens – dramatically painted black and red like a regal presence chamber or a prison cell. Elizabeth is across the tracks of the railway in East Princes Street – a delicate spider’s web of crimson silk thread hanging from a red frame that could equally function as a throne canopy or gibbet. Linking the two, through the streets of the city, right out to the East Lothian coast where Mary enjoyed the countryside and Jacobites later rebelled, Donachie has inscribed trails of scarlet pigment, suggestive of historical connections and contemporary politics. A brief rainstorm last night transformed the powder into livid rivulets, as uncanny as the indelible blood of Mary’s murdered secretary Riccio which Holyrood Palace guards like to point out to gullible tourists a mile or so down the road.

I’ve long been a little obsessed with the tragic rivalry between the two Queens. Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of their passion in the early 1970s BBC serial and Holywood film is seared into my childhood memory. Donachie’s multi-layered interpretation is a canny reappraisal: a modern history painting in the manner of Jean Louis David, deftly incorporating romantic traces as it weaves around the Walter Scott Memorial and echoes with the mighty confrontation scene of Donizetti’s opera, Maria Stuarda: ‘Bastardo…..’

Last year’s excellent exhibition on Mary at the National Museum of Scotland drew attention away from her portrayal as victim towards the sophistication of her court and her role as patron and stateswoman. Chatting with Donachie at the dinner I sensed that her sympathies lay with the beautiful French exile. She clearly took the view that her perfidious English cousin Elizabeth was the plain and sour villain, out to trap and destroy her rivals.

I have to admit that I retain a sneaking admiration for ‘Gloriana’ (here my colleagues will sigh!). I’d argue that she had the better (or at least more dramatic) fashion sense and a more sophisticated approach to politics. Indeed, her recorded aphorisms are still a useful aid to diplomacy: ‘I seek not to make windows into men’s souls’ sounds a little more progressive and collegial than Mary’s self-obsessed ‘In my end is my beginning’ (though I guess the fact she uttered this on the scaffold before her botched execution provides some excuse!).

Donachie said that a historian had reminded her that, though the table would always be set for Elizabeth at banquets, she never allowed food to pass her lips in public. Sensible insurance against poison? Or a sign of neurosis? I glanced across the table at an empty place-setting and made a wish that the ghost of a hungry Elizabeth would suddenly manifest herself there, with Mary appearing opposite. Surely both would enjoy the spectacle of Scotland in the summer of 2014, and perhaps even make friends.

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