Object 62: Cashier's portrait, 1759

Portait of John Campbell

Portrait of John Campbell, cashier of The Royal Bank of Scotland, by William Mosman, 1759. © RBS

In 18th century Scotland, reputation was everything. This traditionally poor nation was at last prospering, but intense political disputes still bubbled beneath the surface, ready to erupt into division and violence at any time. Nobody's loyalties were above suspicion, and the neutral ground between factions was a hard place to inhabit.

John Campbell knew all about living between separate worlds. He was the illegitimate son of an aristocratic family, closely tied to his kinsmen yet entitled to no inheritance. His background pointed towards Jacobite sympathies, yet he worked for a bank popularly identified with their opponents, the Hanoverians. He made his life in the business community of lowland Scotland, yet his cultural allegiances belonged to the Highlands. He was both a banker and a poet; a man dedicated to business, and to family; a man of words and a man of action.

This portrait shows how Campbell took ownership of the different worlds in which he moved, using them to shape his public persona and that of the bank he represented.

John Campbell had joined the Royal Bank at its foundation in 1727, and had held its top job - known as cashier - since 1745. To his family, he was known as 'John of the Bank', and for many customers and contacts in the period, he was the Royal Bank.

Some of this picture's motifs refer directly to that role. The coins and banknote on the table are nods to his profession. The note is unmistakably a Royal Bank one of the period, carefully draped to show both its royal portrait - its most distinguishing feature - and Campbell's own signature on it. The gun is a declaration that money entrusted to his care - and by extension, to his bank - will be robustly protected.

In the background are references to the life that had brought Campbell to his present position. The view through the window shows Ardmaddy Bay, Campbell's birthplace. On the windowsill, a pile of books recall his early training in an Edinburgh lawyer's office.

When the picture was painted in 1759, wearing tartan was banned in Scotland.

Finally, there's Campbell's remarkable tartan outfit. This was no accident of wardrobe. When the picture was painted in 1759, wearing tartan was banned in Scotland. Wearing it in a portrait was thus a very deliberate choice. For those who wished to see such messages, it suggested Highland and possibly Jacobite loyalties. For those who did not, it at least underlined Campbell's Scottishness, and declared that he was his own man, prepared to be rebellious to remain true to himself. It also showed, of course, that he was trusted and respected enough by the authorities to get away with such a gesture - at odds with the political agenda of those in power - without falling foul of the law.