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19 FEB, 2010

Sawston Hall Portrait of Mary I

Posted By Hope Walker

Although I have spent some time studying the secondary literature, I have not yet seen this picture in person. In this brief blog I wish to comment on a few items from the article in order to clarify what are some clear mistakes by the writer while also taking issue with some of the quoted statements by other named individuals. Aside from my obvious interest in Tudor portraiture, this debate has come across my desk three times now and I felt it would make an interesting blog topic.

In August, 2009 The Times of London published an article describing a Tudor portrait that was for many years in the collection of the Huddleston Family at Sawston Hall, near Cambridge. The portrait–a full-length portrait of an unknown lady dressed in black satin–is now owned by Canon Timothy Russ, who intends to sell the picture in order to raise funds for the restoration of Sawston Hall. The implied goal of the Times article appears to be an effort to unpack a debate among Tudor historians and art historians regarding the portrait and the attribution of the sitter; some argue that the work is a life portrait of Queen Mary I, while others claim that this attribution simply isn’t possible based upon the evidence found within the portrait.

These quotes from the article are presented in no particular order:

and by the Tate’s Destinies exhibition 1995 it had become A Lady in Black.”

The exhibition–curated by Dr. Karen Hearn–was actually called ’Dynasties; Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England’ and was held at Tate Britain in October 1995. [You can purchase a copy of the catalogue here.]

The painting, oil on panel, is an unsigned full-length portrait of a lady, in black and wearing no jewellery.”

In fact, the lady is holding something–a jewel of some sort–which hangs from a ribbon held in her hands; Karen Hearn suggests that it may be a mirror or a miniature (Dynasties, p. 53). There is also a small broach at her breast and the band of her hood is all in gold enamel. It is important to keep in mind that whenever these items are listed among contemporary Tudor jewel inventories, they are all listed under the ‘jewel’ heading and need to be considered as such.

The article goes on to quote Professor John Scarisbrick: "There was nobody outside the royal family important enough for such a lavish full-length painting - and if it is isn't Mary, who is it? Nobody else fits the bill.."

In my opinion, this statement isn’t complete. In fact, there are several full-length portraits from the period in which the sitter is not -royal- although still of high rank; examples include the c. 1546 portrait of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, presently at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as well as the portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham, presently in the Mercer Company Collection in London. Even so, the scale of the portrait does suggest high rank, primarily because these pictures were valuable objects and a large portrait was more expensive than a smaller picture by virtue of the materials involved and the time the artist would spend on its creation. Still, to suggest that the scale alone is indicative of royalty simply isn’t accurate for the period.

For me, what is interesting about the scale–and the fact that the lady is looking her right–is that it suggests to me that the work may have been part of a pair. Of the larger scale portraits of the period that I am aware of, many of them were part of a portrait pairing in which the lady hung to the right, often looked to the left, and was paired with her husband to the left. Given that the scale of the lady is large, I strongly suspect that were someone to conduct additional research on this picture it may be possible to link it to another full-size picture of a male sitter. From what I have read thus far, this possibility has not even been considered. And, if this work were to be done and another picture located, the identity of this sitter may well become much more evident.

Further, although the picture is clearly important and beautiful, I would not describe it as "lavish". For the period, it certainly is not. In fact, everything about it is understated, from the dress to the jewels and the background and that fact may well turn out to have a direct connection to the identity of the sitter.

In discussing the oral history of the picture in the Sawston Hall collection, and the fact that the picture has always been known in that collection is being "Mary I", Historian Linda Porter is quoted as saying, "I'm certain it's Mary," she said. "It was quite fashionable in the last decades of the 20th century to question the identity of sitters in several well-known Tudor portraits, but some of this scepticism has now come full circle-the portrait of Katherine Howard that was questioned at this period is now thought to, indeed, be her. My own view is that family traditions are very often reliable."

In my experience, this is not generally the case. Provenance is a very delicate business that can easily be inaccurate if only based upon family tradition. This is particularly true if there is no documents with which to support it. And, even in those cases, the documents can be wrong, fraudulent, or otherwise in error. There were also dozens and dozens of portraits sold in the 17th and 18th-centuries attributed to Mary I that have since been attributed to other sitters. There are also documented cases of portraits that were inscribed and/or ascribed (by dealers and owners alike) to a particular sitter in order to increase their value and/or their caché within the collection. After all, a portrait of Queen Mary I is going to have more value on the open art market when compared to another sitter, particularly if she is labeled "unknown."

Regarding the suggestion that the picture is a portrait of Mary I, Dr. Tarnya Cooper, Curator of 16th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and a leading figure in Tudor portraiture, is quoted in the article as saying, "We concluded that while it is undoubtedly a very interesting and important painting, it cannot represent Mary I mainly because of facial dissimilarity with other authentic portraits of her. It is more likely to be a member of the nobility, possibly from within Princess Mary's circle."

I entirely agree with Dr. Cooper. Of the known portraits of Mary I painted from life–by both Hans Eworth and Anthonis Mor–there is absolutely no similarity in the likeness of the two sitters.

The article goes on to quote Canon Russ:"It is a puzzle picture, with secret messages in the background. The ruins, painted in blood red, behind the sitter could denote the Reformation destruction of Catholic churches and proscripton of priests; a head to her right showing a triple crown tumbling off it could be the rejection of the Pope; to her left, there appear to be several profiles, at least one of which could be Henry VIII; and at the foot of the column to her left appears what could be a baby in swaddling."

The mention of "puzzles" within the picture is somewhat disturbing to me as I do not believe that we should look at Tudor portraits as games. They were all, in fact, meant to be understood and read, although the ‘ideal viewer’ could be a single person. Ruins and columns, for example, had iconographic meaning to Renaissance viewers and those in this picture should, in my view, first been understood in that context. Unfortunately there is no detailed image of the portrait available online, so I am unable to closely examine the other items referenced in the article text. From the images I have seen I do not see anything remotely close to what has been described; aside from a slightly ruined wall in the background, a ring of acanthus leaves around the column base directly behind the lady, and a simple tile floor, I see no other decorative references from within the work.

In spite of what I have written above, I do intend to write to Canon Russ in order to request more information about the picture including detailed photos. I am, as always, entirely open to being wrong about any picture and there is still much that is yet to be learned about the many amazingly beautiful works of art from the period of which this picture is surely one. Still, articles like this are somewhat frustrating to me as mistakes in the text–and potential misquotes–really aren't helpful in educating the public about the many fascinating pictures from the Tudor period.

Watch this blog for more information about this picture as it becomes available.

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