About this artwork

For centuries, the dramatic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, has provided exciting subject matter for painters, writers and composers. Here, Sir William Allan depicts the assassination of David Rizzio, the queen's Italian secretary, in March 1566. The artist took great care to be historically accurate, establishing the exact identity and role of all the individual conspirators and recreating the look of Mary's rooms at the Palace of Holyrood. Allan based his Earl of Morton (with black hat to the far right) on a contemporary portrait, attributed to Arnold Bronckhorst, which is in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. To the left, Mary is being restrained by her husband, Lord Darnley, who was part of the conspiracy but later denied any involvement.

Sir William Allan

Sir William Allan

Born in Edinburgh, Allan was apprenticed to a coach painter before studying at the Trustees' Academy in the city from 1799; David Wilkie was a fellow student and became a lifelong friend. Allan went to London in 1803 to continue his studies, possibly at the Royal Academy. In 1805 he went to Russia, where he was based until 1814, travelling widely in the region. On his return, he settled in Edinburgh where he painted scenes inspired by his travels as well as subjects from Scottish history and Sir Walter Scott's novels. He was appointed Master of the Trustees' Academy in 1826, elected President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1838 and became the Queen's Limner for Scotland in 1841, the year he was knighted.