Identifying the sitters in the NCMA’s Scott family portraits is one of the main goals of the Scott-Jacobean Project. After two and a half years of research, one thing is certain: who these people are is anything but clear. Of the seven NCMA Scott paintings, five identities are in serious question.
The portraits came to the Museum with names attached—ancient inscriptions on the front and decaying labels on the back—with places, death dates, and other details. Unfortunately, very little of this information is original to the painting; much of it was added 100 or more years after the paintings were made, long after the sitters were dead. It’s likely that someone in the Scott family felt the need to put names to these ancestral images, but memory rarely serves portraits well. Karen Hearn informed me of this last year while consulting on the Scott portraits. As former curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate Britain, she has found that the identification of subjects in 400-year-old portraits is frequently wrong. Portraits have been mistakenly identified as that of a more popular or infamous relative. A generation or two after a person’s death, there’s no longer anyone living who knew the person, so who’s to know the difference?