Would the real Sir William Bruce please stand up?

03 November 2014
imports_CESC_fig1-56824_65064.jpg Would the real Sir William Bruce please stand up?
Dr Charles Wemyss explores what the recent discovery of a portrait of Sir William Bruce can tell us about how this well-known architect wished to be remembered for posterity

Dr Charles Wemyss explores what the recent discovery of a portrait of Sir William Bruce can tell us about how this well-known architect wished to be remembered for posterity.

For many years the image of Sir William Bruce has been characterised by the well-known portrait by John Michael Wright that hangs in the Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, in which the ‘introducer of architecture’ is dressed in a striped dressing gown with a stylus in one hand and a manuscript in the other (left).

Recently, however, a second portrait has come to light that depicts Bruce in a wholly different guise. Attributed to the English miniaturist, Joseph Cooper, this painting illustrates a fresh-faced young man clad in a breastplate, as if he were a knight in armour: an image radically different to that portrayed by Wright (below). Yet the facial features of the two portraits are so alike, there can be no doubt about its authenticity.


So why did William Bruce, who hoped to be remembered as a Restoration virtuoso, choose to be recorded for posterity in such a retrospective fashion?

If he had taken an active role in the Civil War, the choice of a breastplate would have been entirely appropriate; but there is no evidence that Bruce was involved in a military engagement at any time during his career. He did play a discrete part in the restoration of Charles II, when he acted as an intermediary between General Monck and the King in exile, but his early career was spent in France and the Dutch Republic where he traded as a merchant. It is clear, therefore, that this image was unrelated to his active military service.

Yet, it is surprising to find just how many of Bruce’s contemporaries followed the same precedent: the Earl of Wemyss, for example, chose to be portrayed by David Scougall in full armour, despite having led the Covenanting army to defeat at the Battle of Tippermuir. They did so in order to project their noble status.

In Scotland, noblemen were judged, not by their personal wealth but by their ancestry, and there was no better means of expressing an ancient lineage than by adopting the traditional military symbols of the medieval nobility.

It was to display their noble credentials that so many Scots adopted the breastplate as their personal hallmark: and William Bruce was no exception to the rule.


The discovery of this portrait, and the image that it sought to project, has profound implications for the development of Bruce’s career as an architect. It helps to explain why so many of his early country house commissions bore such a seemingly antiquated appearance. Although he was resident in Holland when the great classical town-house of Amsterdam was under construction and had access to the famous sixteenth-century pattern books of Europe’s most celebrated classical architects, the portrait proves conclusively that he was also aware of the vital significance of history and lineage to the Scottish nobility.

When he did eventually return home at the Restoration and was able to put his experience into practice, he had already given consideration to a form of architecture that combined the fundamental principles of classicism with the traditional military symbols of the tower-house: and the solution was very simple. He deliberately retained remnants of the original building in deference to the past and created a new façade that was carefully balanced by matching corner towers.

It was this ingenious format that he adopted at Holyroodhouse, Thirlestane, Hatton, Culross and even at his own house at Balcaskie in Fife. Like the breastplate, this antiquated style of architecture perfectly reflected the aspirations of the Scottish nobility in the post-Restoration era.

Dr Charles Wemyss is the author of ‘Noble Houses of Scotland’ published by Prestel. The book is illustrated with more than 200 photographs, drawings and plans, and guides the reader through the singular features of Scottish noble homes: the stately setting, the balanced facade, the formal appointments and fashionable furnishings, explaining how each was achieved.

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