A papist painting for a Protestant parliament?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), News, Volume 16

What appears to be a triumphant William of Orange on a white horse. The ire of the vandals was provoked by the image in the top left corner—the pope on a cloud bestowing a blessing on William below. But is it really King Billy? (NI Assembly)

What appears to be a triumphant William of Orange on a white horse. The ire of the vandals was provoked by the image in the top left corner—the pope on a cloud bestowing a blessing on William below. But is it really King Billy? (NI Assembly)

In May 1933 some visiting dignitaries from Scotland were being given a tour of Stormont as guests of John W. Nixon, an Independent Unionist MP. Without warning, the leader of the delegation, Charles Forster, a Scottish Protestant League member and Glasgow city councillor, threw red paint at a large painting, while his colleague Mary Ratcliffe slashed it with a knife. Bizarrely the painting depicted their hero, a triumphant William of Orange on a white horse, but what had provoked their ire was the image above his head—Pope Innocent XI, resting on a cloud, bestowing a blessing on William below. To add insult to injury, the man on foot in front of William’s horse appeared to be a Franciscan friar, complete with rosary beads.
They were not the first to be affronted by this particular painting. It had been purchased sight unseen some weeks before by the Northern Ireland government for £209–4–0. Some mystery surrounds its purchase, and Prime Minister James Craig was quick to lay the blame on Speaker Norman Stronge (see HI 15.6, Nov./Dec. 2007, pp 26–31) once questions were raised about the papist presence above King William. It has been suggested, however, that he had been persuaded to buy it by Dame Dehra Parker, a close friend of Craig’s who would later become minister for education. It would seem that the offer of a monumental portrait of a triumphant King William on his white charger landing at Carrickfergus was too good to refuse, and cheers went up from Unionist MPs on hearing the news.
But the grand unveiling ceremony in the lobby outside the Members’ Room in March 1933 was something of a damp squib, as the cheers turned to gasps of horror when the MPs realised just who the figure on the cloud was. On 8 March 1933 Nixon raised the issue with Craig, demanding to know why a picture portraying the pope was hanging in Stormont. Craig took some time to reply, but when he did he uttered his infamous speech, ‘I am an Orangeman first and a Protestant and a member of parliament afterwards . . . All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. He then went on to disavow any responsibility for its purchase.
This did not satisfy Nixon, who then plotted to get rid of it. Nixon was a particular hate figure for Northern nationalists. Originally from County Cavan, he had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and then rose to become a district inspector in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. While in the RUC, he was implicated in some of the worst atrocities committed in the early days of Northern Ireland, in particular the massacre of the Catholic McMahon family in March 1922. He was a prominent member of the Orange Order and entered politics after leaving the RUC, becoming an Independent Unionist MP in Belfast. He made a name for himself through his extremist views and attacks on the Unionist government for being too soft on Catholics.
Why he felt the need for outside help to attack the painting is unclear: once the story got out there was no shortage of potential accomplices from across the Ulster Protestant community. But in the event he found willing saboteurs in the Scottish Protestant League. The group led by Forster clearly came prepared to destroy the ‘papist’ painting and were not spontaneously moved to anger at the unexpected sight of ‘King Billy’ in the company of Pope Innocent XI. When they finished their attack, Forster and Ratcliffe were duly arrested and brought to trial some time later in Downpatrick, where they were fined £65 each. It emerged that Mary Ratcliffe and her husband, the editor of an Orange periodical, The Vanguard, had called into Woolworth’s store on their way to Stormont to purchase a kitchen knife and a pot of red paint. Forster directed the paint at the pope at the top of the painting, while Ratcliffe used the knife to slash the friar’s rosary beads.
At the cost of £32–10–0 the painting was restored to its former glory—well, almost: in the restoration process the friar’s rosary beads were removed, giving him the appearance of a common beggar. The affair proved to be such an embarrassment to the Unionist government, however, that it removed the painting from public view and hid it somewhere in parliament buildings. After Stormont was prorogued, it was transferred to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in 1975, where it remained until 1983, when it was returned to the Speaker’s office at Stormont. There is talk now of putting it back on public view there.
But what exactly is the painting and what is its historical significance? It is a large work reputedly by Pieter van der Muelen, court painter to William of Orange. As was the fashion of the time, it is an allegorical painting. The landscape is certainly not Carrickfergus but an idealised representation. The composition of the figures is conventional and similar to many paintings of victorious kings and generals of this era. King William is at the centre, dressed for battle and surrounded by his generals. A poorly dressed man, the ‘friar’, walks alongside his horse. A group of civil and clerical dignitaries appear to be waiting in the foreground to greet him. And above all this, floating on a cloud, is Pope Innocent XI bestowing a benediction on the king.
Historically this does make sense when we remember that the war fought between James II and William of Orange was part of a wider European conflict of Louis XIV and his allies against the other major European powers—including the Papal States—united in the League of Augsburg. Pope Innocent XI may even have financially supported William of Orange in his campaigns against France, and he famously ordered the singing of a celebratory Te Deum in Rome when news arrived of William’s victory over James at the Boyne. So it would be understandable that once William became the king of Great Britain and Ireland his court painter would celebrate the event and pay tribute to his master’s ally, the pope.
But is all this true? Some years after its purchase an art expert at the Ulster Museum researched the painting and concluded not only that it was not the work of van der Muelen but also that the figure on the white horse was a minor German prince, not King William. And even if it was by van der Muelen, he was a minor Flemish painter who has left little trace of his work apart from this particular painting: outside Ireland no one claims it as his. There is no evidence that he painted at William of Orange’s court, let alone that he was the official court painter. He was the younger brother of Adam Frans van der Muelen (1632–90), to whom he was apprenticed. Adam Frans was a celebrated painter of battle scenes; Louis XIV, whom he was allowed to accompany on some of his campaigns, admired his work. Many of his paintings hang in the Louvre. In this case, if it is the younger brother’s work, the apprentice never surpassed, or even equalled, the master.
The story that Pieter van der Muelen was a court painter to William of Orange and that the Stormont painting was his originated with whoever sold the picture to James Craig’s government in the first place and has been accepted as fact ever since. Art historians have never explained just who that person was or where he or she obtained the painting. Not only was Pieter van der Muelen an obscure painter of little talent, but also his authorship of this painting and its subject-matter are questionable. No one has found his signature on the painting, and there are no obvious indications, by way of a coat of arms or symbols, as to the identity of the subject. Even the flags carried by the officers are imprecise. Furthermore, this depiction does not resemble any of the other well-known portraits of King William III, who is usually portrayed on a bay horse, if at all, and as bareheaded or wearing a fashionable broad-brimmed hat, not a helmet as here. In fact, the tricorn worn by the officer to the right would indicate an eighteenth-century date for this painting.
Assembly members across the divide are calling for this painting to be restored to public view in Stormont. It is argued that it is of historical significance, commemorating a major event in Irish and European history, and that it would be a symbol of the newfound maturity in northern politics if both nationalists and unionists accepted the fact not just of William’s victory but also of his alliance with the pope. How strange, then, it would be if the whole thing turned out to be an elaborate hoax, if it is not the work of Pieter van der Muelen and does not portray William of Orange being blessed by the pope. Nixon and his Scottish accomplices would have gone to all that trouble for nothing.

Tony Canavan is a member of History Ireland’s editorial board.

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