17th Century English School c.1620
Whether it was the subject, a friend or family relation that commissioned this portrait, the aim was to show prosperity and material wealth through costume and, by association, allude to the erudition of the subject.
Painted by an unidentified English artist in c.1620, this portrait is as much a conspicuous display of wealth and fine fashion as it is a record of a likeness...
Whether it was the subject, a friend or family relation that commissioned this portrait, the aim was to show prosperity and material wealth through costume and, by association, allude to the erudition of the subject. A detailed study of her costume sheds further light on its intricacies and helps us better appreciate its high quality within the context of the period.
Our young subject wears a jacket - probably linen - adorned with polychrome embroidery of roses, carnations, pansies, cornflowers, and other flowers. The naturalistic blooms are enclosed within scrolling work of gold, with the whole enlivened with a smattering of sumptuous sequins (called ‘oes’) that would shimmer as she walked. Over this warm and comfortable garment she wears a black gown. Black was the most expensive dye and since the dying process rots the fabric over time, very little black clothing from this period survives.
The black gown has pronounced shoulder wings, stiffened with rows of black satin braid and decorated with a stylised black floral design. The same braid is also used to ‘guard’ the open fronts of the gown, and also to adorn the edges of the long hanging sleeves. Originally such sleeves had a split seam across the top of them, so that the wearer could pull her arms in and out of the sleeves as required. Soon such sleeves became decorative – a signifier of wealth and status but no longer practical to wear for warmth. As seen in this portrait, the wearer would sometimes let the sleeves hang loose from the shoulder and reveal the fabric of the sleeved jacket worn beneath.
That this portrait was painted c.1620 is confirmed by the shape of our subject’s hair which begins to fan out at the ends over the falling ruff. The high waist likewise supports this dating, with the subject appearing to wear a gauzy apron – a fashion set around 1620 and even worn at court. In her hair, our subject wears an elaborate wire headdress known as a ‘tire’ - from which we get the role in Shakespearean times of a ‘tire woman’ - responsible for helping ladies put the finishing touches to their outfits.
Ruffs came in various forms in the Jacobean period. In our portrait the ruff is closed and does not open to display any of the lady’s bosom. It falls in a downward slope from a high stiff collar – hence it is called a ‘falling ruff’ – fashionable throughout the 1620s. The ruff is edged with reticella – a needle lace created with individual button-hole stitches. Lace on the whole outfit is finished off with little stitched spikes known – appropriately - as ‘punto in aria’ stiches in the air.
Although the names of numerous portrait painters (or ‘picturemakers’) from this period are recorded (predominantly those who were members of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers in the City of London), due to fact so few of them signed their work, connecting portraits with painters is a very difficult task. The identity of the artist who painted this work is likewise at present unknown, although the evident quality suggests it was an expensive commission from a talented hand.