The dining room in Canna House

Margaret and John would not be best pleased, but there is a curious connection between Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Laird of Canna’s Royalist ancestor Major-General Archibald Campbell.

Romney – Republican and Mormon – would have been bad news on both counts in Canna House where Margaret, a staunch Democrat, followed every US presidential campaign with keen interest and, like John, had converted to the Catholic faith.

However, I am indebted to Margaret’s great niece, Maggie van Haften, for an intriguing piece of family history, or ‘interesting tit-bit’ as she puts it. Archibald Campbell’s imposing portrait which hung for many years in the dining room of Canna House was painted by George Romney, an 18th century English ancestor of the 2012 candidate.

“Mitt’s father, George, was governor of Michigan in the 60s and was in periodic contact with my parents. After our trip to Canna, Mom asked George about the painting, and he was aware that his ancestor was an artist and aware of the painting of Archibald. This doesn’t qualify someone to be president, but falls into the “oh, that’s interesting” category for me.”

Archibald Campbell

Me too.  In fact the anecdote brings together two larger than life characters.  The Major-General casts a long shadow in John’s life as the buccaneering ancestor who used a fortune made in the East India Company to buy the Campbell  estate of Inverneill on Loch Fyne – and then added fame by sailing west to take part in the American war of Independence.

According to historian Ian Grimble, the Campbells had made themselves one of the most powerful tribes in Scotland by displaying a hereditary flair for joining the winning side in all the major conflicts.  Not this time. Sailing into Boston harbour, Archibald was unaware that the British had been forced out and the port was now in the hands of the revolutionaries. After a short sea battle he was captured with his men before he even landed and spent the next two years in prison. In a letter home he described his discomfort:

“I am lodged in a dungeon of twelve or thirteen feet square, whose sides are black with the grease and litter of successive criminals. Two doors, with double locks and bolts, shut me up from the yard, with an express prohibition to enter it, either for my health or the necessary calls of nature.”

Later freed in an exchange of prisoners, he went on to distinguish himself in the southern American colonies and as governor and defender of Jamaica. A second spell in India saw him become Governor of Madras and knighted as Sir Archibald. He returned to Britain in 1789, but his luck had run out and he died before he could enjoy his possessions. A grateful nation allowed him a burial in Westminster Abbey, where his memorial slab lies beneath a statue of his contemporary, George Frideric Handel.

George Romney

At some point Archibald attracted the attention of the highly successful 18th century English portrait painter, George Romney. According to Wikipedia: Romney was the most fashionable artist of the day, developed an obsession for Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton (he painted over 60 portraits of her) and nurtured a mutually-felt aversion to Sir Joshua Reynolds.  His legacy is a large body of work on display in galleries and museums across the world (among them,  as it happens, the Brigham Young Museum of Art in Utah).

For many years, Canna House dining room was dominated by Romney’s painting of Sir Archibald.  Margaret had cashed some shares to buy John the portrait of his ancestor and allowed him to hang it in the dining room – a concession on her part considering ‘Archie’s’ behaviour during the American War of Independence.

Now there is just an outline on the wallpaper where the portrait used to be. The most valuable painting in the house, it was left by Margaret to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with the hope that it would be on permanent loan in Canna House but for the last few years it has languished in the gallery’s store in Edinburgh and is likely to remain there until the National Trust for Scotland can guarantee a more benign environment for its preservation.

PS: A friend in the know tells me Romney’s picture is not just languishing but receiving good care. Looking forward to hearing more…will update the story as soon as possible.

Absent Archie: the empty space on the right hand side where Romney's painting used to be.