Ghostly Image of Scottish Queen Found Beneath Painting

While using x-rays to study the painter's techniques, one researcher stumbled upon the hidden sketch.

Lurking behind an unassuming 16th century painting is one of the U.K.'s most controversial monarchs—Mary, Queen of Scots.

While using X-rays to photograph a centuries-old painting of Scottish nobleman Sir John Maitland, art conservator Caroline Rae from the Courtald Institute of Art in London noticed the ghostly sketch of a woman beneath the top level of pigment.

The woman can be seen wearing a dress and hat and appears to be looking off to the left. Tracing the woman's outline, Rae compared it to depictions of Mary made during this time period. She found it bore a strong resemblance to other paintings made of the queen.

The sketch also showed the woman's hands at her waist "as if holding a pendant," said Kate Anderson, the senior curator at the National Galleries of Scotland. The woman thus has a similar pose to other images of Mary created in the 16th century.

"We're convinced that it's her," said Anderson.

With X-radiography, Rae was able to reveal the white lead paint beneath the image of Maitland. This type of technology has revealed hidden sketches in famous paintings by artists like Degas and Picasso. While artists working with the upper class during this time period frequently made sketches, Anderson says it's unusual to find a nearly finished portrait sketch from an artist who painted for the nobility. Sketches were typically made on paper before being transferred to a wooden panel.

She speculated the former queen's image was a controversial one at the time of its creation.

The portrait of Maitland was painted by an artist named Adrian Vanson, who finished the piece in 1589—two years after Mary was executed. Anderson thinks the underlying portrait of the woman was also made by Vanson, who may have been commissioned to paint Mary by Maitland. In fact, the outline of a wired widow's cap in the sketch appears similar to the one Mary wore during imprisonment, she says.

While the museum does not know the exact year the sketch of Mary was made, it would have been dangerous to display Mary's face at that time because of the political tensions that followed in the wake of her execution. It's therefore plausible that Maitland quickly had a portrait of his own face made to cover the image of the controversial queen, Anderson said.

Mary had been imprisoned for almost two decades before her execution. Her rule over Scotland was characterized by violence and controversy. Implicated in her husband's murder, she was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567. Fleeing to England, she sought the help of the reigning monarch there, Elizabeth I, who instead had her imprisoned.

Few portraits remain of Mary, said Anderson, making this sketch a particularly lucky find.

When it was discovered, Rae had been examining a series of paintings by Vanson to better understand his technique. According to Anderson, they had no idea what lurked beneath and can only speculate that more hidden paintings are waiting to be found.