On 9 February, the first day of the sale, Scott wrote of Stuart:
This poor man fell, like myself, a victim to speculation. And though I had no knowledge of him personally, and disliked him as the cause of poor Sir Alexander Boswell’s death,18 yet ‘had he been slaughterman to all my kin’, I could but pity the miserable sight of his splendid establishment broken up, and his treasures of art exposed to public and unsparing sale …19
As the author of the auction catalogue indicated, Stuart’s works of art were the result of collecting activities of other members of the family as well as himself. James’s father, Charles, was also a collector and was described as follows by the writer Dr Thomas M’Crie: ‘In Dr. Stuart I always found the honourable feelings of the gentleman, the refined and liberal thinking of the scholar, and the unaffected and humble piety of the Christian.’20 An interesting description of Charles and his collection can be found in Thomas Pennant’s book A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772:
I had the pleasure of seeing, near Aberdour, a most select collection of pictures, made by Captain Stuart, who, with great politeness, obliged me with sight of them. It is in vain to attempt the description of this elegant cabinet, as I may say, one part or other used to be always on the march. This gentleman indulges his elegant and laudable passion so far as to form out of them un cabinet portatif, which is his amusement, on the road, in quarters: in short, the companions of all his motions. His house is very small: to get at his library I ascended a ladder, which reminded me of the habitation of Mynhier Bishop, at Rotterdam, the richest repository in Europe, under the poorest roof. But the comparison fails on this: Bishop was a brute, our countryman the reverse.21
Julia Williams has also pointed out that James was not the only collector in the family: there are two sales linked to the name of Alexander Stuart of Dunearn (died 1786), who was possibly James’s uncle.22 The first was held in 1786.23 The exhibition of the paintings, 283 of which were Dutch and Flemish, was held for almost a month in the Large Rooms of the Royal Exchange of Edinburgh. There is also the record of an Alexander Stuart of Dunearn posthumous sale held in London in 1788,24 consisting of paintings from the family house in Dunearn by Italian artists such as Bassano, Giordano, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and examples by Rubens, van Herp, Teniers, Cuyp, Berchem, Wouwerman and Watteau, among others. Alexander Stuart’s nephew, James, possibly participated in the auction and bought a painting described as by F. Hals for £5 15s.
18 According to Bold 1989, p. 30, Sir Walter Scott took inspiration from this contemporary event for the duel in his novel St Ronan’s Well (Edinburgh 1823), his only novel with a nineteenth-century setting.
19 Scott 1890, 9 February 1829.
20 Dr Thomas M’Crie, ‘Character of Dr. Charles Stuart, of Dunearn’, in the book by his son, Revd Thomas M’Crie (M’Crie 1840, appendix, no. 3, pp. 447–50).
21 Pennant 1772, Part 2, p. 207.
22 Lloyd Williams 1992, pp. 17–20 and 170. A collector’s file for James Stuart of Dunearn exists in the Getty Provenance Index and mentions the other collectors of the family.
23 Catalogue of Capital Paintings by the First Masters Collected by the Late Alexander Stuart, Esq. of Dunearn. Now on exhibition at the Large Rooms Royal Exchange, Edinburgh, 24 July to 12 August 1786, privately published (Lugt 4076). In a copy in the library of the National Gallery, London the annotator wrote that the sale raised £2,302 and commented: ‘… such was the very low state of the Arts at Edinburgh’.
24 Catalogue of a Valuable Collection of Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch Pictures, the Property of the late Alexander Stuart, Esq. deceased; brought from his seat at Dunearne in Scotland, Christie & Manson, London, Monday 25 February 1788.