Last year’s Scottish independence referendum, and the subsequent SNP surge at the General Election, has placed questions about the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom centre stage. As an art historian interested in the history and visual culture of the Union, this is a fascinating time for me. And it certainly provides a stimulating context within which to write my doctoral thesis on the iconography of political union and disunion in the Houses of Parliament, c.1834–1928.
The often heated debates over Scotland’s place in the UK have resonated particularly strongly with the topic of my final chapter. This focuses on a little-known controversy that erupted in 1927 over a painting bearing the somewhat unwieldy title The English and Scottish Commissioners present to Queen Anne at St James’s Palace the Articles of Agreement for the Parliamentary Union of the Two Countries, 1707. Painted by Thomas Monnington (1902–1976), the picture forms part of ‘The Building of Britain’ series in St Stephen’s Hall, the space built by Sir Charles Barry on the footprint of St Stephen’s Chapel after the fire of 1834.
The painting (120 inches × 174 inches) is the last of eight murals by eight different artists illustrating the growth of Britain and its empire. Other subjects, chosen by the poet and historian Henry Newbolt (1862–1938), include Richard the Lionheart leaving for the Crusades, Elizabeth I commissioning Raleigh to sail to the New World and Sir Thomas Roe at the Court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Unashamedly imperial in its message, the series also presents a certain English dominated view of Britishness, with Monnington’s scene the only one to refer to a UK nation other than England.
Newbolt chose to bring the series to a close with the 1707 Act of Union because he believed it to be "the predominant event in the origins of our present empire". He described it as marking "the union of the two first elements, neither of which would be what it now is, without the other". Scottish nationalists, on the other hand, saw the events of 1707 in a far less positive light. Though the precursors of today’s parties such as the SNP, the nationalists of the 1920s largely sought home rule (devolution) instead of outright independence. But their feelings about the Act of Union were much the same, and as Monnington’s painting neared completion in the summer of 1927 it became the topic of a number of lively debates in Parliament and the press.
Leading the attack was Scottish Labour MP Thomas Johnston (1881–1965), a senior figure in the home rule movement. For Johnston and his fellow home rulers, the Act of Union was a "shameful event" brought about by English bribery. In the House of Commons, he condemned the subject as a "national humiliation" unworthy of being the only scene to represent Scotland in ‘The Building of Britain’. Johnston then used the painting to draw attention to present-day Scottish grievances under the Union in an attempt to bolster support for home rule and encourage Scots to stand up for their nationality in the face of English domination. Were they to accept without protest the glorification of the Union that Monnington’s picture represented, he argued, they would "acquiesce in race suicide".
Chief among those defending Monnington’s picture, and the status quo of the Union itself, was Scottish Unionist MP John Buchan (1875–1940), best known today as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Though Buchan had some sympathy with Johnston’s concern for the erosion of Scottish national identity, he disagreed entirely on the main points at issue. Sidestepping the murky events surrounding the passing of the Act of Union, Buchan concentrated on what he considered to be the wholly positive legacy of 1707. For Buchan, Scotland had benefited greatly from losing its independence and the Act of Union had enabled everything the country had achieved since. Far from being a national humiliation, he considered the event’s inclusion in St Stephen’s Hall a ‘compliment’ because the ‘union of ancient enemies’ had been chosen as "the most important, the culminating" highlight of British history. Instead of presenting an argument for home rule, Buchan saw Monnington’s painting as proof of the continuing value of a union that enabled "the little nation of Scotland … to play a great part in the history of modern Britain".
Ultimately Buchan’s viewpoint won out, and Monnington’s painting was installed in 1928. Since then it has largely functioned as intended: an illustration of the Union’s inception rather than a focus for debates about its future. But what additional meaning will the painting take on should Scotland ever leave the UK? This issue was actually addressed by Buchan himself in 1927. He concluded that should Scotland become independent the picture would ‘acquire a very special significance and value for it will be a memorial of the events which inaugurated the Parliamentary Union which has lasted for more than two hundred years, during which the two allies have played a great part in the world's story.’
Last year’s ‘No’ vote ensured that Scotland remained part of the Union. But, as events develop, could Monnington’s painting yet become a memorial to the UK as we know it?