The precise activities of this group in a park remains unresolved although it can, with a certain amount of caution, be taken to represent a clandestine Jacobite gathering. The principal figures, the seated lady in white and the gentleman in Stuart tartan, seem engaged in a secret meeting while the lady in red, standing with her back turned, shields them and keeps watch. In front of her a female figure points, possibly in recognition of the gentleman, while to the right a young child restrains a King Charles spaniel.

The gentleman could be intended as Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), known as the 'Young Pretender', and the seated lady Flora Macdonald (1722-90). The latter has Flora's dark hair, while the roses on her hat in her lap are an identifiable Jacobite symbol. Facially the gentleman resembles images of Prince Charles Edward which would have been widely known and accessible in England through prints.

Van Reysschoot's gathering is treated in the manner of a French fête champêtre, perhaps reflecting his French training, while its setting appears to be St James's Park. Among the park's famous features were maids with their cows, usually found at the entrance from Spring Gardens, offering fresh, warm milk to passers-by. A milkmaid with her cow appears in the background to the left, while to the right the long avenue of trees and hint of water can probably be taken for the long Canal, at the head of which was the Close, familiarly called Jacobite Walk and known as a meeting place for lovers.

Flora Macdonald and Prince Charles Edward never met in St James's Park and the scene is most likely an imaginary event, perhaps painted in 1746-7 when a romanticised view of Flora and the Young Pretender was at its height. The Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746 served to heighten the popularity of Jacobite images, especially ones which reflected a sentimental, romantic fantasy. Several prints of the period hinted at an entirely fictitious romantic liaison between Flora and the Prince; van Reysschoot's setting of St James's Park, which by the middle of the eighteenth century had acquired a rather risqué reputation, could be seen to exploit this. On the other hand, while in England van Reysschoot is known to have worked for Jacobite supporters who would not have favoured images which satirised or trivialised the Cause. As the early history of the picture is not known, nor the circumstances behind its production, it is difficult to make a precise reading of its content.

Van Reysschoot worked in England from at least 1732 but is known to have returned to his native Ghent in 1744. However, he appears to have run a parallel career in England and on the Continent, making a later dating of 1746-7 for this picture entirely possible.

Further reading:
Marie Fredericq-Lilar, Gand au XVIIIe Siecle: Les peintres van Reijsschoot, Ruiselede, 1992

Tabitha Barber
October 2000