English School (1629)
The blackwork embroidery is enlivened with gold thread, and the gold that glitters in her hat band, not to mention the great ropes of gold jewellery that she wears, confirms her prosperity...
This remarkable early-Stuart panel portrait boldly demonstrates that swagger portraits were not statements of wealth exploited only by the young...
At first glance her black clothing might indicate a sense of sobriety, but when we realise that black was the most expensive dye, her clothing might not seem that humble. The richly-patterned damask gown is set off by a pair of sleeves that are split to reveal finely-embroidered undersleeves. The blackwork embroidery is enlivened with gold thread, and the gold that glitters in her hat band, not to mention the great ropes of gold jewellery that she wears, confirms her prosperity.
Strings of pearls adorn her wrists and peep from her hat band. The fine beaver hat is one of the most conspicuous accessories and also one of the most expensive being the product of trans-Atlantic trade. The subject’s love of expensive embroidery is evident from the gloves that she carries.They glisten with sequins, which also adorn the edges of the gold and silver bobbin lace with which they are trimmed.
Black braid edges the open skirt of her gown, revealing gold braid on a green floral petticoat – a welcome dash of colour.The green contrasts with the complementary colour red of the elaborately bound prayer book.Her crisp linen ruff and cuffs (trimmed with bobbin lace) remind us that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.Such items would require a great deal of washing, bleaching and starching to maintain their pristine appearance. This high level of maintenance came at great expense which the contemporary viewer would certainly have known.
As well as an audacious statement of wealth, this portrait was also intended to be a visual manifestation of the subject’s piety. This message is made clear from the outset in the upper left corner by an inscription taken from Psalm 73 verse 24 that reads: ‘GUIDE ME BY THY COUNSELL/AND AFTERWERD RECEIVE ME TO GLORY.’ In her right hand the subject holds an open prayer book, marking a page with her thumb, as if caught off-guard in a moment of devout reflection.
Despite her obvious wealth, the subject is eager to display a sense of humility. Her concerns echo religious teachings prevalent in the early 17th century which condemned moral corruption within the upper classes and especially amongst the merchant class who profited from trade – which may well be the source of our subject’s affluence. No doubt fearing an interpretation of avarice, the subject balances the trappings of her prosperity with objects symbolic of humility and mortality, the most notable being a timepiece which hangs from a delicate red ribbon attached to her waist. The timepiece is a work of art itself, crafted in gold, and from it hangs a small winder, a pertinent reminder of the passing of time and the fleeting importance of worldly goods.
Within the context of early 17th century English portraiture, the present work is somewhat of an anomaly. By the time this work was painted in 1629 the approach to portrait painting had generally progressed from the stiff representation of form which characterised the Tudor and Jacobean periods, to the more dynamic approach influenced by the baroque style flourishing on the Continent. Clearly unbothered by the latest fashions in portraiture, the subject of this work stands as a determined member of the old-guard, reluctant to sacrifice the precious detail this style of portraiture allows, and sternly staring old age in the face with dignity and confidence.