Mention Bonnie Prince Charlie and I find my mind drifting towards shortbread: those iconic Walkers’ tins full of petticoat tails, with the vivid red tartan sides, and on top a highly romanticised painting of the Prince in full Highland rig, complete with lacy jabot and wig. How many of those tins must be sitting in houses about the world, containing sewing things or forgotten collections of post cards?
Prince Charles Edward Stuart has suffered more than many historical figures from such embellishments. It is hard to disconnect the man from all those romantic accretions, but looking at this travelling canteen in the National Museum, reminds you who and what he really was. This object is about as far from a mass produced biscuit tin as you can get. It was made by a top Edinburgh craftsman, the wonderfully named Ebenezer Oliphant and was most likely as a 21st birthday gift to the Prince.
The canteen is all about brilliant craftsmanship and it is completely on trend with its rococo swirls and silver gilt finish. It is a beautiful piece of clockwork made for eating. The forks and knives are made in two pieces and must be unscrewed for storage in the silver-gilt egg-shaped case. There is a corkscrew and a nutmeg grater, as well as a little salt and pepper shaker, not to mention a quaich. This is an object of conspicuous consumption, and would have seemed dazzling at a time when most folk thought themselves lucky if they owned a pewter spoon.
A Princely picnic
I have chosen to write my piece in the form of the words for an eighteenth century da capo aria. Handel’s Italian opera had been the rage in London about the time this object was made – and opera was a luxurious, aristocratic pastime, indulged in by people who would have aspired to a piece of silver like the travelling canteen. Handel’s intricate, glamorous music seemed the perfect inspiration for this extraordinary object.
The more I thought about him, the more Charles Edward (or Carluccio as he was known to his family) seemed like the perfect hero for a Handel opera. He is an exiled prince – young, noble and handsome with a great destiny ahead of him that he must fulfil or become a tragic figure. As was the custom of the time the Prince Hero would be sung by a male soprano, very probably a castrato. These voices were prized for their purity and emotional force, and like Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, particularly admired by women. If you listen to modern singers like Andreas Scholl, Robin Blaze and Phillipe Jarroussky you will get some idea of the power and beauty of this style of singing.
So I began to imagine Prince Charlie as a figure on the baroque stage, stopping the action to dazzle the audience with an aria. So we discover him picnicking in a grove, musing on his condition and the piece reflects the different musical moods of a da capo aria:a lyrical opening section, then a contrasting central section with a different musical mood and idea, followed by the opening repeated but this time with intricate ornaments improvised by the singer.
All I need now is someone to write the tune. Any offers?