ART LIFE

POSTCARD BIOGRAPHIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY; 2 J M Barrie (1860-1937) on Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

From the late 1920s, the National Portrait Gallery invited leading writers to create 70-word biographies, of subjects whose portraits hang in the Gallery, for the backs of postcards. In this 12-week series, we present some of the most exceptional and unexpected of these unknown literary gems

Daughter of James V of Scotland. Still haunts that country and may cause further trouble. Thrice married. Mother of James I of England (her poorest achievement). Two more high-mettled ladies than she (the Roman) and Elizabeth (the Protestant) never sat simultaneously on adjacent thrones. Had either of them been a man they would have adored each other. The Englishwoman was the greater; but Mary smiled at her and Elizabeth knew why. Something personal. At the age of 26 Mary was imprisoned by Elizabeth for 19 years and then beheaded. The gentler Mary in her place would have omitted the period of captivity. It was perhaps necessary for the welfare of Britain that one of them should destroy the other. J M Barrie

This spritely and opinionated contribution proved a little too strong for the guardians of the National Portrait Gallery. It was well over the 70-word limit, so it had anyway to be pruned; letters show that the editors were not sorry to lose some of the more pungent phrases. But the final printed version (below) also shows they were content to allow Barrie his final sentence:

"Daughter of James V of Scotland. Still haunts that country. Thrice married. Mother of James I of England (her poorest achievement). Two more high- mettled ladies than she (the Roman) and Elizabeth (the Protestant) never sat on adjacent thrones. Their duel was for religion. Mary being Elizabeth's heir. At the age of 26 she was imprisoned for 19 years and then beheaded. It was perhaps necessary for the welfare of Britain that one of them should destroy the other."

Portraits, drawings and letters from the "postcard biography" archives are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2. Free.

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