One of my favourite paintings on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a portrait of Mrs. Farquarson of Finzean by Henry Raeburn. There are two reasons I enjoy this painting; firstly, the sad story of the sitter, which perhaps explains her less than happy expression. The second relates to a legend circulated by the staff of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery of a ghost known as The Woman in Black.
The subject is Frances Farquarson (born as Frances Russell of Blackhall sometime in 1792), dressed in black attire with an uncharacteristic vacant expression on her face. The painting is one of a pair, the other being of Archibald Farquarson, 8th Laird of Finzean, the man Frances married in September of 1814. The companion piece can be found in Aberdeen Art Gallery and also shows Archibald dressed in similarly black attire, which points to both these paintings commissioned as a celebration of the marriage. Both were painted sometime between their marriage in 1814 and 1823. (See Archibald Farquarson of Finzean on the Art UK website.)
Frances and Archibald were the ideal pair on paper; she was the daughter of a rich lawyer from Strachan and objectively quite pretty, and he was a Laird whose estate formed nearly half of the parish of Birse in Aberdeen. Unfortunately, the relationship was not as blissful as you’d might hope; Frances was a more refined gentlelady and Archibald was a wild child. He was known as the ‘Wild Laird of Finzean’ and was described as “A rackety kind of person who lived fast with fast people”. He was a gambler, he was a drunk, and potentially an abusive husband. Archibald even appealed to the House of Lords to claim some of Frances’ inheritance money when her father passed away in 1827. The two ended up completely penniless thanks to this wild lifestyle. Archibald ended up drinking himself to death and died in May of 1841. A few years later, Frances died in July of 1847.
Raeburn was an empathetic artist; he worked quickly so that people did not have to sit for very long during sessions and he was known for capturing emotions in his subjects that other portrait artists were incapable of. In particular, the expression of Frances in this painting. Unlike her female counterparts in the gallery, Frances differs in that she does not smile. Her expression is blank and distant, as if her story has bled into the emotion of the painting. Her black, void-like eyes seem to suggest a tragedy bubbling just below the surface of a demure wifely woman. The trouble in paradise may have begun even as early as the year of their wedding, perhaps even before that.
But it’s link to multiple sightings of a ghost in the galleries really make this piece fascinating to me. Members of staff here have reported seeing a figure we have come to call the Woman in Black, named after the novel and film. She has been spotted all across the building, but she is most frequently sighted in front of the portrait of Frances Farquharson. She stands motionless before the portrait, often appearing as the museum closes up and lights begin to go out. On one occasion, one of our enablers mistook the ghoul for a lost visitor in the darkness and turned the gallery lights back to help her, but she disappeared as they turned to talk to her. The sighting was rumoured to be picked up on the security cameras!
This portrait is one of only two things that signify Frances’ place in history, the other being her headstone in Birse. With the knowledge of her tragic history, and should the Woman in Black be a real spectre of the deceased, it would not be completely out of the question to suggest she would want to hold on to a happy remnant of the life she used to have.