A History of Art in England (18): All change; it’s William Hogarth!

As we enter the 18th century in “An Introduction to English Painting”, John Rothenstein reflects on the course of art-making in England so far. The Reformation meant a near-deserted landscape for visual culture with the destruction and distrust of any religious and church art tradition. When we do find painting, it is within the closed circles of power, the monarchy and aristocracy, to which artists from the continent for the most part have been invited to create an art of ‘magnificence’, of show and display, echoing and reflecting the glamour and ostentation of European counterparts. For three centuries, any free opportunity for artists to explore painting and creativity had been severely restricted; even in aristocratic portraiture – the dominant art form – the demand was for little more than “stylish and flattering likenesses”.

And whilst there were studios and workshops with apprentices, they were making art to order: there were no art schools as such.

All of this would gradually change through the new century.

The painters at work in England… had two attributes in common: they one and all exalted, in the persons of kings, noblemen, statesmen, merchants and clergy, the established order of society, and none of them made any comment upon it.

Enter William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; William Hogarth

Hogarth’s Self-portrait (‘Portrait of Hogarth, painting the figure of Comedy’)

[1754; National Portrait Gallery; artuk.org]

Given the word-based culture of England in which his art is rooted, Hogarth was what we might call a story-teller painter; importantly he looked at the world around him, everyday London society, its events and characters.

His idea was that his paintings might be akin to theatrical productions, but based on the “dramatic possibilities of contemporary life.”

And looking through the artuk.org website, it’s interesting to note that Hogarth often painted actual theatrical performances, such as:

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; A Scene from 'The Beggar's Opera' VI

“A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ VI” [1731; Tate]

As the Tate notes:

This is one of the first paintings made of an English stage performance. It depicts a climactic scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. Here the opera’s central character, a highwayman named Macheath, stands chained, under sentence of death, between his two lovers, the jailer’s daughter, Lucy Lockit, and the lawyer’s daughter, Polly Peachum.

But more than just the scene from the play: At either side of the stage Hogarth has included members of the audience, and there is a wry nod to the current of gossip, for amongst the audience is, notably at the far right the Duke of Bolton, real-life lover of the actress Lavinia Fenton, who played the part of Polly Peachum.

 In recording a particular performance then, Hogarth takes in the broader contextual theatre of human relationships on and off the stage.

That (very Shakespearean) sense of the human drama comes across even in Hogarth’s early ‘conversation pieces’

 A conversation piece is an informal group portrait popular in the eighteenth century, small in scale and showing people – often families, sometimes groups of friends – in domestic interior or garden settingsTate

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Woodes Rogers (c.1679-1732), and his Family

Woodes Rogers (c.1679–1732), and his Family [1729, National Maritime Museum]

It’s very interesting to read the National Maritime Museum’s commentary on this painting: Rogers was a famous Bristol seaman and would become the Governor of the Bahamas – note the globe, the ship, the map, the tropical fruit – and if you’ve seen David Olusoga’s recent “A House Through Time” [BBC i-player] you’ll realise immediately that this is all connected with the Atlantic slave trade and the creation of Empire.

Again, it’s both the on-stage and off- that matter when it comes to looking at Hogarth’s paintings.

Hogarth includes all the trappings that tell the story of Woodes Rogers and his Family, and there is a theatricality, a performance, as the son presents the map to the patriarch; his wife is disturbed from her reading, an audience member along with servant and dog (neither of whom look particularly impressed!)

Lighter, it would seem, is:

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Portrait of a Family

“Portrait of a Family” [1735; Yale Center for British Art, artuk.org]

Hogarth’s characters are relaxed, all in conversation and interacting with each other – and the kitten in the foreground playing with the yarn basket knocked off the table – far from the static portraits we’ve seen previously. It is like a scene from the theatre, a ‘caught in the moment’ picture of the (wealthy) life of a family at home.

However, this everyday picture, in documenting the furnishings and trappings of the well-to-do, also reveals the extent of imperial trade: not only in terms of the material luxury of the room, the clothes, the situation itself – which we could well contrast with Hogarth’s etching “Gin Lane” (see Tate) – but also because, on the extreme left, half-way down (the painting has been cropped at some time in its history) is a pair of hands carrying a tray. They are the hands of a young African servant (see Yale Center).

Hogarth’s great innovation in painting the drama of everyday life was to create series of pictures with developing stories:

A Harlot’s Progress

A Rake’s Progress

 Marriage A La Mode

and others are all well-known ‘morality tales’, satirical takes on the hypocrisies of 18th century life (see Apollo magazine), including the divide of rich and poor on London’s streets in the Four Times A Day series (there’s a short introductory clip from BBC2 here).

Hogarth’s “Four Times A Day: Night”

For perhaps the first time since the Reformation, Hogarth connected the common viewer to the art of painting – not only through his depictions of recognisable everyday life and darkly humorous critiques of society through story-telling (which often became etchings for sale, or printed and discussed in the popular press) – but by displaying and exhibiting art in the public sphere.

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Portrait of Thomas Coram by Hogarth [1740, Foundling Museum]

Most important in this context is the Foundling Hospital set up by Captain Thomas Coram in Bloomsbury to look after abandoned children to which Hogarth donated his portrait of Coram and other paintings, and encouraged other artists to show their work on its walls, such as:

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; The Finding of Infant Moses in the Bullrushes

The Finding of Infant Moses in the Bullrushes by Francis Hayman (1708–1776)
[1746; The Foundling Museum; artuk.org]

Moreover, Hogarth set up an art school, the St Martin’s Lane Academy, which ran from 1735-1771, its members drawn from the informal circle of artists who met at Slaughter’s Coffee House, including the very young Thomas Gainsborough.

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A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy
by Johann Zoffany RA (1733 – 1810) [c.1761; Royal Academy]


One way or another, Hogarth’s paintings are entwined with broader aspects of society than had ever been known in England; he is instrumental in creating a new visual culture. Next time, we’ll look at the circle of artists around Hogarth andtheir new subject ‘popular’ matter, and then we’ll introduce another contemporary artist but one working outside the purlieus of London, Joseph Wright of Derby.


Other notes:

One of the elements Hogarth brings into his London street scenes is the general cacophony of the city and its people and there’s a great discussion from the Foundling Museum’s exhibition Hogarth & The Art of Noise.

Also worth looking up is the contemporary artist Lubaina Himid, who won the Turner Prize in 2017, and whose work draws on Hogarth’s paintings.


Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; A Modern Midnight Conversation

A Modern Midnight Conversation

[New Walk Museum & Art Gallery; artuk.org]


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (18)

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A History of Art in England (17): Beyond the Beauties

To start with an update: a huge thank you to Lydia Hamlett who has sent us the self-portrait that Antonio Verrio included in the vast Heaven Room wall-painting at Burghley House (see Rambling no.16).

Rambling 1

And it is a perfect beginning: it suggests something rather interesting about how we might look at Restoration portraiture. For, whilst we might see Verrio’s self-portrait as a ‘documentary’ record of himself, he portrays himself within the drama of the scene at hand (he is at Vulcan’s forge). He is both a ‘real person’ as the artist responsible for the work and a ‘character’ within the spectacle of the story – blurring the boundaries of reality and fiction as was so fundamental to Baroque art at its most spectacular.

This blurring, one suspects, was part and parcel of the culture of the Restoration court; its way of seeing itself.


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Sir Peter Lely: Self-Portrait [1660; National Portrait Gallery]

Through to the end of the 17th century, portraiture continues to dominate, indeed it seems there was an avalanche of portrait production, especially in workshops associated with the court. Often, as is the case with Peter Lely (1618-1680) who became Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II in 1661, the demand was so great that whilst he painted the ‘heads’, his colleagues and pupils completed the rest of the portrait to set designs.

The most famous paintings by Lely are probably the Windsor Beauties, although in “An Introduction to English Painting” our guide John Rothenstein is less than convinced:

“In undertaking the Windsor Beauties Lely was not free to pursue the perfection of his art, instead he was compelled not only to flatter, but in deference to the taste of the Court, to emphasise the sensual aspect of his sitters […which is] deleterious to portraiture, for since the end of that art is the rendering of individual character…   the exaggeration of a characteristic that is common to a great part of mankind is inevitably detrimental.”

Left: Portrait of Frances Theresa Stuart (Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, 1648-1702) as Diana [1662; Royal Collection]

Right: Portrait of Barbara Villiers (1st Duchess of Cleveland; 1641-1709) as Minerva [1665; Royal Collection]

They are portrayals of sensuality rather than of individuals, Rothenstein concludes, following apparently in the steps of diarist Samuel Pepys who declared the portraits ‘not like’ their supposed sitters!

Inevitably, having been painted and displayed in an environment as decadent and libertine as the court of Charles II and to include a portrait of Barbara Villiers, the king’s mistress, the portraits are seen as akin to a beauty pageant (or even ‘pin-ups’; they were utterly scandalous to the Victorians).

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Portrait of Anne Hyde [Duchess of York, 1637-71) [1662; Royal Collection]

Yet, as Brett Dolman writes, this is rather unfair to both the artist and the sitters, for
The ten portraits in fact represent not royal mistresses, but some of the closest friends of Charles II’s sister-in-law, Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, and were collected by Anne for display originally in her apartments at St James’s Palace.

The Windsor Beauties then were paintings commissioned by a woman of her women friends.

They were, Dolman continues, “a fashion statement of cultural sophistication” done in the sleepy-eyed-pose-and-loose-fitting-robes-style of the day.

Might we see the portraits as recording a friendship group and their shared enjoyment of the exuberant, fictional, fashionable Baroque culture? This would undermine Rothenstein’s way of seeing, his expectation that portraits should reveal an individual’s character.

Instead we have that ‘crossing-boundaries’ aspect of the Baroque between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ (indeed the ‘individual’ and ‘communal’). I have a whimsical idea that we might view the portraits not as individual paintings, or even an individual series, but within the context of Verrio’s wall-paintings; all part of the theatricality.


The Windsor Beauties keep us very much within the inner sanctum of court life. However, there is a sense that, as we reach the turn of the 17th century, art is expanding and opening up.

Godfrey Kneller had settled in England in 1674 and would follow Lely as Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II. His most famous paintings are probably the Kit-Kat Club portraits.
The Kit-Kat Club was an early 18th-century English club in London with strong political and literary associations, committed to the furtherance of Whig objectives (ie. against absolute monarchy, for parliament and in support of the Glorious Revolution in which William and Mary were invited to take the throne in 1688), meeting at the Trumpet tavern in London, and at Water Oakley in the Berkshire countryside.

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) [1705, National Portrait Gallery]

Now at the National Portrait Gallery, what is so interesting about these is that although they continue to depict princes, earls and lords in the main (‘men of power’), they also include portraits of figures such as the architect John Vanbrugh, the dramatist William Congreve and poet Joseph Addison, thus recording a turn in art’s almost exclusive focus on court life to the intellectual, creative and cultural life of society.

Mary Beale’s works lead us even further away. Her’s is a fascinating story – a woman whose artistic skills supported her family, and there is a brilliant self-portrait in which she is holding a canvas (portraits of her two sons) as exemplar of her work, a palette on the wall behind:

Beale, Mary, 1633-1699; Mary Beale

Mary Beale (1633–1699) [1666; National Portrait Gallery, artuk.org]

And although she had connections to the upper echelons of society, her work also reflects to expansion of the fashion for portraiture – her commissions are often friends of friends, many of her sitters are of the clergy [see artuk.org]

Moreover – and I think most importantly – she painted her family.

Rothenstein dismisses Mary Beale as a minor artist of “dull and spiritless” work, yet the portrait of her husband Charles (1632-1705) is – I think at least – full of extraordinary character; an ‘ordinary’ man painted by an artist who’s way of seeing is far removed from Baroque flamboyance.

Beale, Mary, 1633-1699; Charles Beale (1632-1705)
We might also note the artist John Riley (1646-1691), not for his work alongside Kneller at court but, as Rothenstein notes, for painting some of the few pre-eighteenth century portraits of working class people.

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Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) [1686; Royal Collection]

Bridget Holmes, shown here at the reputed age of 96, was James II’s ‘Necessary Woman’, responsible for cleaning and preparing the royal bedchamber, polishing and dusting fragile furniture and, with the assistance of other servants, laying fires, mopping and sweeping, and emptying and cleaning chamber pots and close stool pans.

The Royal Collection also has John Riley’s portrait of Katherine Elliot (d. 1688) was James II nurse who became dresser to both his wives and at Christ Church, Oxford is Riley’s “Scullion” as discussed by Tom Lubbock.

scullion of church.tif


As we enter the new century and the early decades of the Georgian Age then, the landscape of art – style, subject matter, ways of seeing as well as the role and position of artists – is changing and expanding.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (17)

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A History of Art in England (16): Enter Antonio Verrio

Portraiture continued to dominate the visual culture of post-1660 Restoration Britain – and we’ll look at artists such as Peter Lely, Mary Beale and Godfrey Kneller next time, as they bring us the characters of the ‘new flamboyancy’ that was Charles II’s court.

Yet as John Rothenstein notes in “An Introduction to English Art”, that dominance of portraiture was, to an extent, waning. For example, the art of landscape, he writes, “was coming unobtrusively into being” and at Dulwich Picture Gallery there is a painting by Robert Streater (or Streeter; 1621-1679):

Described… as ‘A Large Landscift don by Streeker…’, this is one of only two easel pictures documented as by Streeter, and a rare authenticated example of a landscape painted in England in this period.

Streater, Robert, 1621-1679; Landscape

“Landscape” [Dulwich Picture Gallery, c/o artuk.org]

However, it is a much more theatrical art that became the fashion of the day. With Rubens’ Banqueting House and the Gentileschis’ work at Greenwich as precedents, wall- and ceiling-painting in the Baroque style were de rigeur in palaces and country houses through to the 1720s.

Of course the “British Baroque: Power and Illusion” exhibition at Tate Britain is closed due to the lockdown, but on the website there is an excellent Exhibition Guide where, as you’ll see, many artists – as had been the case over the centuries – were invited or had migrated to Britain from Europe. As well as artists and crafts-workers bringing skills and ideas into Britain, travel to Europe – among the royal and aristocratic classes – stimulated new desires and expectations. When, after the beheading of Charles I, his supporters fled into exile, they found themselves in the Netherlands or France. And it was in Paris that the future Charles II grew up, surrounded by astonishing visual splendour – an echo of which he would bring back to London: the theatres were re-opened, the arts of poetry and wit dominated the salons, everything was show in this extravagant, decadent, scandalous age.

Verrio, Antonio, c.1636-1639-1707; Antonio Verrio

Antonio Verrio: Self-Portrait (c.1700; National Portrait Gallery, artuk.org)

And the leading light of the Baroque revolution was Antonio Verrio; born near Naples in 1636, his artistic skill brought him work throughout Italy and France. It was in Paris that he met Ralph Montagu (1st Duke of Montagu) – appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the French Court by Charles II – and it was Montagu who invited Verrio across the Channel in March 1672.

For details of Verrio’s life and work in full, the essays by Cecile Brett and Brett Dolman under the Research & Resources page of the British Murals Network are fascinating to read. There is also a brilliant article by Laurel O Peterson in Journal 18 on “A New Golden Age: Politics and Mural Painting at Chatsworth”.

Verrio’s London first commissions were a huge success and he rapidly became “the artist of fashion” and very soon received a commission from the King himself…

Rambling 3

Rambling 3: The Sea Triumph of Charles II [c.1674; Royal Collection Trust]

The King, wearing classical armour, is driven through the water by Neptune in a high, shell-backed chariot. He is accompanied by three female figures carrying crowns and embodying his three kingdoms. Above his head Fame holds a scroll inscribed IMPERIVM OCEANO FAMAM QVI TERMINET ASTRIS (‘Let the boundary of his empire be the ocean and the limits of his fame be the stars’). Time and a female figure hold a wreath and a helmet above his head. In the sky Envy is struck by lightning and chased by putti with the attributes of Peace and Love, and two more putti carry the royal arms on a shield. Beyond are Minerva and Venus looking down on the British fleet below, including a warship flying the royal standard.

Verrio’s next commission from the King was to decorate the north range of Windsor Castle – a massive project that would take ten years to complete with a retinue of assistants: twenty ceilings, three staircases, the King’s Chapel and St George’s Hall.

Today, only three of the ceilings remain [see Royal Collection Trust], including The Banquet of the Gods, in the King’s Dining Room.

Rambling 5

There is also a sketch at the Tate for another ceiling – this time for the Duke of Monmouth – which gives a real sense of Verrio’s detailed and dramatic work:

An Assembly of the Gods

Verrio, Antonio, c.1636-1639-1707; Sketch for a Ceiling Decoration: An Assembly of the Gods

They are extraordinary images; the walls and ceilings open up into the Heavens, gods, goddesses and putti fly in and out of these theatrical trompe l’oeil vaults; on entering such a room the common viewer must have been shocked and transported as reality merged with the imaginary, undermining ‘solid’ architectural space.

Charles II had denizened Verrio, so that as a Catholic he was still allowed to work in Britain, a state that continued under James II’s short reign. However, with the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary in 1688, the Test Act (the underlying principle of which was that only people taking communion in the established Church of England were eligible for public employment – Wikipedia) was strictly re-imposed.

However, a private commission for John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter and his wife Anne at Burghley in Lincolnshire are surely Verrio’s most stunning and outrageous achievements. The BBC has film footage and there’s an essay with images by Rachel Rhine – both of which help envisage the true extent of the decorations.

I can’t resist this image of the Devil’s cat though, it’s jaws, open and menacing, the gates to Hell’s fires:

Rambling 6

The Hell Staircase

Much more pleasant is of course

The Heaven Room:

Rambling 7

(I’m fascinated by that rainbow cutting across the scene above Vulcan’s forge, its brilliant colour heightening the dramatic impact even further. Is it the symbolic representation of the painter’s palette? There is also Verrio’s self-portrait in this scene too – although I can’t find a close-up image – connecting with both the rainbow then, as well as the craft-making, metal-working of the forge/ workshop).

Again, a two-minute clip from the BBC is well worth viewing and there is an article on Burghley House at English Home.

William was eventually persuaded to override the Test Act, and Verrio was invited back to Court to paint ceilings and staircases at Hampton Court, including:

Rambling 8

Queen Anne’s Drawing Room (Historic Royal Palaces).

There were numerous other decorative painters – see British Baroque – including of course James Thornhill, whose work included the great paintings at Greenwich Hospital.


Verrio died on 15th June, 1707. Queen Anne died in 1714, and at her passing we enter a ‘new age’. Mural painting did not however disappear with them; the fashion had moved from royals to aristocrats and so to the newly ascendant classes of bankers, traders and merchants.

In their newly-built out-of-town houses, artists such as Gerard Lanscroon – one of Verrio’s students and colleagues on numerous projects, including Chatsworth (where Verrio ‘immortalised’ the housekeeper, Mrs Hackett (Derbyshire Life) –

Rambling 9

would continue painting extraordinary scenes of gods, goddesses and muses, such as at Beaumont House, Southgate.

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The Beaumont’s Apollo and the Muses


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (16)

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A History of Art in England (15): Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi in London

If Peter Paul Rubens’ visit to Britain, and his commission for the painted ceiling at Banqueting House, marks the early years of Charles I’s reign, then the arrival of two other stars of the European art world, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi might mark its ending.

As the National Gallery notes, Orazio moved to London in 1626 where he was employed as court painter for Charles I. He was one of the first practitioners of Caravaggism in England and was held in great esteem. He remained in the country for the rest of his life.
And Breeze Barrington, in the Apollo Magazine writes:
At the English court Gentileschi proved popular with the queen [Henrietta Maria] and was given several important commissions, including the ceiling painting at the Queen’s House, Greenwich (now at Marlborough House), which his daughter, Artemisia, came from Naples to help him finish towards the end of his life.

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An Allegory of Peace and the Arts [c. 1635-8; Royal Collections Trust]

The subject of the ceiling is an allegory of Peace reigning over the Arts. High in the heavens, in the large central scene a personification of Peace with olive branch and staff preside over a gathering of twelve female figures. Directly beneath her is Victory wearing a crown and holding a palm and laurel wreath, her foot resting on a cornucopia from which fruit spills.

The Royal Collection website explores this further (well worth visiting!) and notes something very interesting: there was a book of ‘designs’ by Cesare Ripa called Iconologia (published in 1593) which served as the principal source for allegorical personifications throughout this Baroque period.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

Iconography, the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. The term can also refer to the artist’s use of this imagery in a particular work. The earliest iconographical studies, published in the 16th century, were catalogues of emblems and symbols collected from antique literature and translated into pictorial terms for the use of artists.

And there is a digitised edition c/o the British Library

L0035389 Personification of 'Art' from Cesare Ripa's 'Iconologia...'.

This for example is the personification of “Art”, and there is no doubt that such ‘catalogues’ would have been essential training to 17th century artists across Europe – the various figures composed to create an image suitable to the desire of patrons. With regard to the Gentileschis’ ceiling for example, Catherine McCormack writes:

The overriding message here is verbiose but with an essential concrete message to impart – that Peace (a product of good government and rule) allows the endeavours of learning, knowledge and creativity to flourish under the guidance of the cool headed Reason, in a mutually reinforcing relationship with victory and prosperity for the British realm.

That Artemisia assisted her father on the Greenwich commission is still debated, however historical novelist Alexandra Lapierre writes up the combined artistic mission of father and daughter as the ‘final instalment’ in her historical novel Artemisia (Vintage, 2001) – a story of the competitive love between the two artists. What is so excellent about the novel is that Lapierre brings in the cultural contexts of London and Britain in the mid-17th century: the mistrust of visual art amongst the general population for example: “In their eyes, painting, music and poetry charmed the senses and perverted souls.” That the King and Queen nevertheless associated themselves with all manner of artistic forms, from theatrical performances to decorative paintings when the Queen’s Catholic faith was well-known was an extraordinarily critical matter across a society “where the Pope was viewed as the Antichrist.”

Amidst such difficulties however, the Gentileschi ceiling was completed. Here it is described by Alexandra Lapierre:

“There, Peace and the Arts explodes in a symphony of greens, golds and lavenders, just as Orazio had dreamed. At the centre of the composition, Peace sits on high in the midst of beams of sunlight which suffuse the clouds. The light spreads, like a vibration, across the faces of all the divinities. The virtuosity of the visual effect succeeds in reconciling the artificial realm of allegory with the tangible world. It is a beauty that combines the pomp by which Orazio set such stores with the full-blooded truth to life that Artemisia demanded. The ceiling immortalises a single vision: that of both Gentileschis, father and daughter.


With the Civil War breaking out just a couple of years later (1642), the King and Queen had little time to enjoy these ceilings. However, such artistry will re-appear with an even more magnificent flourish when the monarchy is restored, Charles II takes the throne in 1660, and another extraordinary artist from Italy is presented at court: Antonio Verrio.


In 2019, the National Gallery was able to buy Orazio Gentileschi’s “The Finding of Moses” which was commissioned by Charles I of England for his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, almost certainly to celebrate the birth of their son and heir, the future Charles II. It originally hung in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames.

And what is very interesting is that: This location is reflected in the lush green landscape, which looks far more like England than Egypt where the story is set.

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The National Gallery’s exhibition of works by Artemisia Gentileschi has of course necessarily been postponed. However there is information about her paintings on the website including her “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” which was in Charles I’s collection (now in the Royal Collection) and probably painted during Artemisia’s time in with her father London.

Royal Collection

The Royal Collection website is full of detail, noting for example:

Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation”. Artemisia captures the essentials of this description, leaving out the inscription on the mask and the gagged mouth, intended to symbolise that Painting is dumb.

One can be sure that Artemisia was far from “dumb” which is why I would highly recommend Alexandra Lapierre’s novel and the National Gallery exhibition – when a new date has been announced!

(Next time: Antonio Verrio).


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (15)

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A History of Art in England (14): Heads (painted, and lost)

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; Charles I (1600-1649), and Henrietta Maria (c.1609-1669), with Their Two Eldest Children, Prince Charles (1630-1685), and Princess Mary (1631-1660)

Charles I (1600–1649), and Henrietta Maria (c.1609–1669), with Their Two Eldest Children, Prince Charles (1630–1685), and Princess Mary (1631–1660)
Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) (after); Chiswick House [artuk.org]


Charles I and Henrietta Maria brought the art of painting to the centre of court life as never before seen in Britain, primarily through acquisition – inaugurating a wave of collecting amongst the aristocracy – but also through direct contact and appreciation of artists themselves.

Charles’s interest in art began in 1623, when he went to Madrid… in Spain, Charles saw the glories of its royal art collection… [and came home] with paintings by Titian and Veronese, and a burning ambition to acquire a great art collection of his own. [There’s a great article about this in a BBC article here]. And as the Royal Academy notes, Charles’s ‘burning ambition’ combined with Henrietta Maria’s sophisticated knowledge of the art world and the impact of visual culture.

The Royal Collection website notes:

Charles’s passion for contemporary art, and for the patronage of contemporary artists was also fuelled in the 1620s and his interests as a collector and patron became increasingly widely-known across Europe.

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Roy Strong (in “The Spirit of Britain”) draws our attention to this 1628 painting by Gerrit von Honthorst in the Royal Collection. The Duke of Buckingham presents the Muses of the Liberal Arts to the royal couple who we see re-presented as Apollo and Diana, sun and moon – the couple loved masques and dressing up. More ‘politically’ though they are hereby deemed “patrons of the arts and the focal point of the kingdom’s intellectual activity.” Which really says everything about how they saw themselves and expected others to see them, thereby increasing the divide between court patronage and the common viewer.

I do however think it’s important that as a collector and connoisseur, Charles was keenly aware of contemporary art. As we saw last time, Charles commissioned Rubens to paint the great Banqueting Hall ceiling with its Apotheosis of James I, a unique example of the European-style that occludes the Elizabethan Age and opens a near-century of ‘British Baroque’ – the later stages of which were recognised by a recent Tate exhibition.

Rubens, one of the most famous artists, widely-travelled but based mainly in Antwerp, was in London through 1629-30. Primarily on a diplomatic mission, he nevertheless had time to paint, for example “Venus, Mars and Cupid” and “Peace and War”, both gifts to Charles and now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

However, for Rothenstein in “An Introduction to English Painting”, it is Rubens’ student, “the dazzling figure of Sir Anthony van Dyck”, who dominates:

“…he became Court Painter to Charles I and settled here more or less permanently in 1632… In his portraits Van Dyck gave the supreme interpretation of the chivalrous romanticism, the gravely poetic spirit with which Englishmen of the age of Charles I were imbued.”

That might be so, but equally Rothenstein writes that Van Dyck brings an audacity, a loftiness of vision, a new sensitivity to style and new understandings of design and colour. There are so plenty of his paintings to explore via artuk.org, but if I were to choose two, it would be especially for the richness of colour and texture:

Sir Robert Shirley (1581–1628) [1622, National Trust, Petworth House]

A Lady of the Spencer Family [c.1633–8, Tate]

(both at http://www.artuk.org).

Whilst Rubens would influence Constable, so Van Dyck is the forerunner of Gainsborough and Singer Sargent – however neither established a school of art in Britain, although Rothenstein does note Van Dyck’s pupil William Dobson (1611-1646) for his robust realism, colour and brushwork, and whom one of his peers described as “the most excellent painter that England has yet bred”

Little is known of Dobson’s early career, though Britannica.com reports:

While an apprentice to a stationer and picture dealer, the young Dobson began to copy the pictures of Titian and Anthony Van Dyck and also to draw pictures from life. Van Dyck, happening to pass a shop in Snow Hill where one of Dobson’s pictures was visible, sought out the artist and presented him to Charles I, who took Dobson under his protection and not only sat for him several times for his own portrait but also had the prince of Wales, Prince Rupert, and many others do the same. The king had a high opinion of his artistic ability, styled him the English Tintoretto, and appointed him sergeant-painter on the death of Van Dyck.

That appointment was in 1641, a year later the English Civil War broke out and Dobson found himself based at the royalist court in Oxford where, Rothenstein writes, “he painted a group of portraits marked by rare nobility, a direct but deep insight into character and resonant colour.”

Dobson, William, 1611-1646; Portrait of a Royalist

Portrait of a Royalist [1643; National Maritime Museum]

A half-length portrait of an unknown Royalist naval commander. He wears a salmon-pink doublet, with braid on the front and sleeves. Over his left arm, a drape of blue material, perhaps a silk cloak, may also symbolise the sea… one of Dobson’s most glowingly coloured works.

Whilst there’s quite a discussion at artuk.org with regard to the sitter’s identity, I quite like the fact that he’s “unknown”; proud and loyal, he looks out with that poetic sensibility Rothenstein notes.

 There were portraits painted on the Commonwealth side of things also, by artists such as Robert Walker (1599-1658), the chief painter of the parliamentary party during the Commonwealth of England from 1649–60, whose “heads” are still under the influence of Van Dyck but which, Rothenstein writes, “are truly and wholly Puritanic”.

Walker, Robert, 1599-1658; Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658)

[The Captain Christie Crawfurd English Civil War Collection; artuk.org]

Another English artist of the Commonwealth was Edward Bower (1597-1667) who sketched the doomed King Charles – defiantly wearing his hat – at the trials of 1649:

Bower, Edward, 1597-1667; Charles I (1600-1649), at His Trial

Charles I (1600–1649), at His Trial [National Trust, Antony]

The king would be beheaded a week later on scaffolding outside the Banqueting House (Rubens’ ceiling apparently covered over).

Charles and Henrietta Maria’s art collection would be sold off. (There’s a brilliant book looking at all of this by Jeremy Brotton called “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods”.

Cromwell’s Puritan forces take centre stage.

And, as Rothenstein puts it:

“beauty was suspect as the enemy of the good.”


However, with the collapse of Cromwell’s revolution and the Restoration of monarchy, there would be a new flourishing of visual art in Britain later in the 17th century – and one that would gradually expand into the common viewer’s domain.

And it is of note, before we leave Van Dyck behind, that as well as the inevitable portraits so beloved of the British court, he painted, in watercolour:

An English Landscape (possibly Rye)

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; An English Landscape

[late 1630s, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts; artuk.org]


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (14)

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A History of Art in England (13): The Stuarts

Rothenstein may be correct when he writes in An Introduction to English Painting that nothing much changed with James I on the throne, but it certainly marked a time of transition: seeds were being sown for quite a revolution – or should I say revolutions (plural)? – during the first years of the 17th century.

For, on the socio-political horizon is the beheading of Charles I and then the Cromwell’s Interregnum. Events which will affect art and artists in Britain as we’ll see.

In terms of a revolution in visual culture too, seeds were planted right at the heart of Westminster under the watch of James I; they would grow strong through until the Puritan mid-century, and then bloom in the final decades of the 1600s.


Roy Strong notes in The Spirit of Britain that whilst James himself was not especially interested in culture, Queen consort Anne of Denmark was visually sophisticated, as were sons Henry, Prince of Wales and Charles (the future king).

As Patron of the Arts, Anne’s masques, plays and revels were extravagant and exuberant affairs, huge propaganda coups with audiences of foreign dignitaries and ambassadors.

Anne also commissioned artists for portraits, including the miniaturist Isaac Oliver who we met last time as the pupil of Nicholas Hilliard.
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Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver
watercolour on vellum, circa 1612; 2 in. x 1 5/8 in. (51 mm x 41 mm) oval

Another artist from Elizabeth’s time was Robert Peake (the Elder)
who continued at Court as James’s serjeant-painter alongside Oliver, and the Flemish painters John de Critz and Marcus Gheerearts the Younger. There’s a fascinating sentence in the Wikipedia entry for this group of four: “Between 1590 and about 1625, they specialised in brilliantly coloured, full-length ‘costume pieces’ that are unique to England at this time”.

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Henry Frederick (1594–1612), Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington (1592–1614), in the Hunting Field; 1603; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The art historian Ellis Waterhouse suggested that the genre of elaborate costume pieces was as much a decorative as a plastic art. He notes that these works, the “enamelled brilliance” of which has become apparent through cleaning, are unique in European art and deserve respect.
I have to say I’m quite intrigued by this. We might see such ‘costume pieces’ as a development of Hilliard’s miniatures for their colouring and details, mixed perhaps with the theatricality the court enjoyed so much (and might they foreshadow say the work of Joshua Reynolds? – to be discussed!)

That sense of scene and action in Peake’s painting – whilst it’s a sort of ‘play acting’ style that may not have lasted very long – is nevertheless a sharp contrast to portraits such as:
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Portrait of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset (1589-1624) by William Larkin (1613)

As fabulous – indeed extraordinary, check out those shoes and carpet! – in detail as it is, this flat icon-like tradition in portraiture, so favoured by the Elizabethan court, was definitely coming to an end with the Stuarts.

Perhaps the best way of illuminating the changes to come is to look at:

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this detail from a portrait of James I of England in state robes (1566-1625) by Paul van Somer[c.1620; Royal Collection], in particular what we see in the background: the Banqueting House. Another image (now at the Morgan Library in New York) reveals the starkly dramatic change this building represents:

amidst the jumble of buildings that made up the medieval Palace of Westminster, here we have a classically-inspired architecture brought by Inigo Jones back from his Italian studies. Roy Strong writes of how it “must have staggered the average Londoner of the 1620s as it rose amidst the rambling Tudor red brick of Henry VIII’s palace.”

On the history of the Banqueting House, please visit Historic Royal Palaces.

This jump is the starting-motor, as it were, that would generate the revolution in English art under the Stuarts.

Reflecting and responding to the Renaissance developments in Europe – from which England had been isolated from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I – the Banqueting House represents a (re)turn to the classical aesthetics of Ancient Rome. After all, James I had united England and Scotland under the old Roman name of Britannia.

Moreover – and this would lead also to the political divisions ahead – this classical style signified the absolute rule of emperors, in other words, the early Stuarts presumed a ‘Roman inheritance’: the divine right of kingship.


Remember the illuminated manuscripts?

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Looking at examples like this, we realise that medieval men and women were used to seeing various objects all at different angles and sizes, all of which they could negotiate and understand simultaneously.

With the turn to Renaissance classicism however, that multiplicity would gradually change. First in the theatres (1610s), then for painters (1630s), a new way of seeing was introduced by means of mathematics and geometry: perspective; the realignment of space to create the illusion of depth ‘within’ the picture frame.

To summarise Roy Strong (The Spirit of Britain): medieval polycentricity was disregarded for an image “in which [the subject] was placed at the centre of a unified and harmonic cosmos.”

I have to put in Sir Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit
[c.1620–5; Tate] here

Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620-5 by Sir Nathaniel Bacon 1585-1627

as it reveals not only the art of the Flemish still life arriving in Britain, but the skills of perspectival painting – from the fore-fronted vegetables (all apparently growing in Suffolk at this time) to the voluptuous woman in the centre-ground and so through out into a landscape scene.

It’s a brilliantly eccentric painting by an apparently amateur British painter.

Within the realm of the Stuart court, that central subject of the new perspectival way of painting would be the king himself of course.

And we should note something more: the translation and reinterpretation of Baroque art (which we will look at more in depth) from the European Catholic courts of Italy, Spain and France to London where, once again, art was used to symbolise the power of majesty through magnificence.

Charles became king in 1625 and it was to commemorate his father’s reign – and all it signified – that in 1629 he commissioned a ceiling for the Banqueting House from the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

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Here we see James as King Solomon, uniting Britannia.

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And in the central panel, the Apotheosis of James I (see Tate) in which he is carried up to heaven by Jove’s eagle, assisted by the figure of Justice, with Minerva (Wisdom) overhead.
Through dramatic perspective, light, shade and colour, Ancient Roman gods and goddesses transport the king heavenwards in grand, theatrical Baroque-style.

Within the first three decades of the 17th century, we are already light years away from the art of Elizabethan England – at least at the heart of the Royal Court.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (13)

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A History of Art in England (12): Passions in Miniature

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945
John Rothenstein by William Rothenstein [1938; Tate]

In An Introduction to English Painting, John Rothenstein actually had very little to say about Elizabethan art & visual culture, indeed he was quite dismissive: “her Court painters became primarily painters of fashion”. However, he does admit that “No English portraits of the age are equal in accomplishment or grasp of character to those of the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619). His art was closely linked with that of the English mediaeval illuminators, but Holbein was his master.”

Hilliard certainly looked to Holbein, but we mustn’t forget that Hilliard’s ‘mistress’ when it came to limning, the painting of miniatures, may well have been (according to Roy Strong) Levina Teerlinc (1510s – 23 June 1576).

Teerlinc reminds us that many artists of the royal court came from Europe, in particular the Netherlands. She was from an artistic family and trained in manuscript illumination. She came to England in 1546 and worked at the courts of Henry VIII (she was paid more than Holbein!), Edward VI, Mary I and it would have been under Elizabeth that Teerlinc taught the goldsmith apprentice Hilliard the art of miniature portraiture: watercolour on vellum, often with the most extraordinary detail.

It was the beginning of a particularly English tradition.

The Victoria and Albert has quite a collection of Hilliard’s work as does the National Portrait Gallery (where there is a short film of Andrew Graham-Dixon discussing the miniatures of Elizabeth).

There is of course something very different about miniatures: their size. The portraits we saw in Rambling (11) would have been hung on walls in prominent rooms, in country house galleries: they were to be seen ‘publicly’ as it were. Miniatures were displayed – in cabinets or even worn at court – yet their size suggests an intimacy in the act of looking; they are held in the hand and regarded closely, perhaps even privately. And they are full of suggestive detail – secret symbols to be decoded by the viewer or the portrayal of feeling and emotion ‘for your eyes only’.

A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses, by Nicholas Hilliard. England, c.1585-95
Perhaps one of the most famous miniatures by Hilliard is A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses at the V&A, thought to represent Robert Deveraux, the 2nd Earl of Essex and an intimate favourite with the Queen herself. Young and gallant, the young man embodies a return to chivalric culture. Moreover, as the V&A notes, miniatures such as this represent expressions of amorous dalliance, votive images given by a knight to his lady in pledge of devotion. And the ‘Young Man Among Roses’ is precisely this, a declaration of love.
Another painting of Robert Devereux is at the NPG (attributed to studio of Nicholas Hilliard; watercolour on vellum, circa 1595).

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Not quite 10 inches tall, 8 inches wide, we see him posing very seriously and wearing the most intricately patterned armour – as does his horse, with great plumes of feathers – alongside a similarly finely-embroidered tent. Note how tall Devereux is by comparison with the horse handler! The helmet resting on the table is also extraordinary – positively surreal with its ‘blank’ interior. It was probably painted to celebrate Essex’s role in the Accession Day tilt of 1595 and Looking at an enlarged image, it is also possible to make out the tents in the background and two figures sword(?)-fighting in the middle ground. More than ‘simply’ a portrait, this is quite a scene: the setting for a glamorous Elizabethan masculinity.

Jonathan Jones’s article in The Guardian explores the minatures brilliantly: These tiny masterpieces, blazing with passion, desire and mystery, are among the most magical creations in British art. He even suggests that they take on something of an “occult quality” – an intensity of powerful meaning.

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There are of course numerous versions of Elizabeth herself, but surely the most intriguing is of her playing the lute (c.1580; Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire). It’s very fashionable of course, but there’s a light-heartedness, far away from the stereotyped official imagery of later years.
Hilliard also worked beyond Elizabeth’s court and there are portraits of people from outside such elevated circles – “anonymous” now, but fascinating for all that.

The miniature on the left is of An Unknown Woman from the V&A and a rare example of a portrait of a person from the very different world of the city merchants and their families. With her tall black hat, smocked stomacher and apron, this woman is typical of her class. Her dress is enlivened not by elaborate jewellery but by means of naturalistic touches in the form of roses and other flowers tucked into the corners of her dress… 

Hilliard in turn taught the art of miniature painting to Isaac Oliver (1558-1617), whose work is slightly different to his teacher’s. Hilliard – reflecting Elizabeth’s own expectations – always painted his sitter in full light. Oliver however used shading and shadow to shape a more three-dimensional sense of the face  – as can be seen in the portrait of An Unknown Man on the right.

Miniatures such as these, along with larger panel portraits, remained a world away from ‘the common viewer’ out and about in the country where the strictures of Reformation continued. Only perhaps now and then would pictures be seen in the books of travelling storytellers, actors and singers.

There are short essays on the British Library website which give fascinating general perspectives on life in Elizabethan times.

Elizabeth died in 1603, the crown passing to James I. Rothenstein writes that this “caused no sudden break in the artistic tradition of the country”. However, there are changes afoot as we enter the Stuart world, and a new century.

To finish: Perhaps the most bizarre as well as mysterious painting of this period is by an unknown artist: The Cholmondeley Ladies [c.1600–10; Tate]

The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600-10 by British School 17th century 1600-1699

According to the inscription (bottom left), this painting shows ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed [gave birth] the same day’.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (12)

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A History of Art in England (11): The Elizabethan Era – portraiture

As John Rothenstein notes in An Introduction to English Painting, Hans Holbein, for all his fame and renown at the court of Henry VIII, never founded a school of art in Britain. Indeed the art of painting fell yet further into disrepute in the common life of England through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Even so, certain aspects of visual culture were actively developed in royal and court circles – principally portraiture (which we’ll look at here) and the art of miniatures, which evolved from the traditions of illumination (next time).

There is a very interesting Wikipedia entry on the broad picture of art in Tudor times
and another looks at Elizabethan portraiture in particular: With the virtual extinction of religious painting at the Reformation, and little interest in classical mythology until the very end of the period, the portrait was the most important form of painting for all the artists of the Tudor court, and the only one to have survived in any numbers. Another great article on Gloriana’s portraits is at artuk.org.

The artists involved here were, for the most part, either invited (by the monarch or an aristocratic patron), or they were fleeing religious persecution, from the continent. In particular Flemish artists were recognised for their technical skills; and many were connected through family and marriage ties. See Karen Hearn’s article on Netherlandish Painters in Britain.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady 1557 by Hans Eworth active 1540-1573

Hans Eworth: Portrait of an Unknown Lady [1557; Tate]

Rothenstein highlights Hans Ewarth, who found exile at the court of Mary Tudor (1553-8) and whilst his patrons were in the main Catholic supporters, he continued to paint under Elizabeth. As the Tate notes: it isn’t difficult to see why he was so favoured – his sitters come across as figures of prestige and authority, probably a more useful record for posterity than mere prettiness. Many may now be forgotten, but their noble features and sumptuous clothing tell us they were people who mattered.

Not that life as an artist was easy; Marc Gheeraerts the Elder and his son Marc Gheerearts the Younger both worked at the Elizabethan court, bringing a range of skills from print-making and architectural design to portraiture.

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Marcus Gheeraerts the elder: The Unfortunate Painter and his Family (detail), 1577,  Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

In this satirical drawing, the Elder artist recognises the insecurity of the artistic life. As discussed in a British Art Studies Article, there is a quotation on the picture:

“With difficulty shall they emerge whose virtues are obstructed by poverty at home”. This alerts us to the proper subject of Gheeraert’s drawing, in which a harassed artist turns from his work—and from Mercury, protector of the arts and financial gain—to attend to his mewling infant, needy wife, and brood of unruly children.

This international network of artists may not be very much of a surprise – after all the art of manuscripts and church wall-paintings had been very much inter-connected all across Europe, moreover, the monarchy itself was very much a transnational affair. It is though perhaps a surprise when, under Elizabeth especially, politics was very much of nationhood and patriotism (it’s really interesting to watch Lucy Worsley’s programme about the propaganda around the Spanish Armada on BBC I-player in this context).

However, despite the lack of  either art schools or much national interest, there must have been some residue of painterly desire and creativity for there were English painters working at the Elizabethan court learning from and working alongside their European counterparts.


Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)
is renowned these days especially for his miniatures (as we’ll see next time).

He comes into the community of artists at court by way of his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, when he was taught the art of limning – miniature painting – by Levina Teerlinc, a Flemish Renaissance miniaturist who served as a painter to the English court of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. She was the most important miniaturist at the English court between Hans Holbein the Younger and Nicholas Hilliard.

And Hilliard also painted larger panel portraits of Elizabeth such as:

Hilliard, Nicholas, 1547-1619; Elizabeth I (1533-1603): The Pelican Portrait

The Pelican Portrait [mid-1570s; National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery; c/o artuk.org].

As research at the National Portrait Gallery suggests, what becomes so important in Elizabethan portraits is not so much the ‘likeness’ but the symbolism; there was a change in the ‘ways of seeing’ of the late Tudors, paintings were ‘read’ for their (often complex) meanings. With regard to The Pelican Portait, NPG notes: The pelican jewel at her breast represents self-sacrifice, as a pelican was said to draw blood from its own breast to feed its young. It alludes to Elizabeth’s role as mother to the nation.


George Gower (c.1540–1596)

George Gower was an English portrait painter who became Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth I in 1581, and there are examples of his early work, along with research essays at Tate.

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Very interestingly, Gower also painted a self-portrait in 1579 showing his coat of arms and his artist’s tools of his trade: An allegorical device shows a balance with an artist’s dividers outweighing the family coat of arms. Karen Hearn is quoted as saying that this is: “a startling claim in England where a painter was still viewed as little more than an artisan. So Gower certainly seems to have had a sense of himself as an artist. The writing at the top right is ‘doggerel’ verse which might suggest something of Gower’s biography:

“yovthfull wayes me did intyse [entice], from armes and uertewe [virtue] yet thankt be God for his god gift, w[hi]ch long did rest as slepe”,

meaning presumably that he had neglected his talent in early youth. But

“Now skill reuyues [revives] with gayne … by pensils [brushes] trade”

– his profession is profitable. It is also honourable: arms display his birth, and

‘what Parents bare by iust renowne, my skill mayntenes [maintains] the prayes [praise]”

[c/o https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gower/selfport.html%5D

With those profitable pensils, Gower became Serjeant Painter to the queen in 1581, and painted her portrait – again, the focus is very much on the symbolism.

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The Plimpton “Sieve” Portrait (1579) now at the Folger Shakespeare Library where detailed iconographic research suggests:

Connections between the sieve and virginity are drawn together in the tradition of Tuccia, a Roman Vestal Virgin who proved her purity to her accusers by carrying a sieve of water from the banks of the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta…  The inscription on the rim of the sieve references the second tradition present within the painting, implying that the queen is skilled at separating the “good” from the “bad” as she rules the country, ensuring that it is only the “good” that reaches her people.

Gower is / was also associated with The Armada Portrait (1588; Woburn Abbey): an extraordinary propaganda picture (again, really worth watching Lucy Worsley’s programme): Her hand is firmly on the globe and the Imperial crown reflects her equality with the Holy Roman Emperor and her status as Empress of the world, whilst the mermaid hints at her command of the seas.


John Bettes the Younger

Whist we don’t know the route by which George Gower became an artist, we met the father of John Bettes the Younger at the court of Henry VIII (possibly working under Holbein), so this is a father-son apprenticeship it seems.

Bettes the younger, John, d.1615; Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603)

Queen Elizabeth by John Bettes the Younger [1590; Pollok House, Glasgow; artuk.org]
Pollok House

What is fascinating about this image is how ‘flat’ it is, making it very suitable in terms of an iconography of the queen that could be reproduced as an authorised version (authorised that is by George Gower) to be displayed to the public, for increasingly the image of Elizabeth was rarely taken from life, but repeated from a standardised model. The portrait functions as a regal icon rather than a human likeness. It is intended primarily to convey a sense of courtly magnificence and authority, telling more about the image cultivated around her than about her true physical appearance.   


Robert Peake (1551-1619)

Peake was an apprentice goldsmith, closely associated with Nicholas Hilliard, and entered the Court by way of the ‘entertainment workshop’, that is The Office for Revels, becoming an established and fashionable portrait painter in the 1580s.

He would become serjeant-painter to James I, but with regard to Elizabeth it is

The Procession Picture (1600-1603; Sherbourne Castle, Dorset)

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which perhaps sums up what the art of portraiture meant in the late Elizabethan era.

As Roy Strong is quoted: this picture is “one of the great visual mysteries of the Elizabethan age” – portraying her as much younger and more triumphant than she was – “[t]his is Gloriana in her sunset glory, the mistress of the set piece, of the calculated spectacular presentation of herself to her adoring subjects.”


Whilst there was a great flourishing of literature, theatre and music – an English Renaissance – the culture for painting was strictly limited as part and parcel of the Elizabethan propaganda machine. As Rothenstein writes, “similarities of style were encouraged by legislation” – and painters’ workshops or studios seem to have been part of that production: note on artuk.org how many – very similar – portraits of Elizabeth there are and that so many were unsigned and so come under British/English School rather than recognised by individual artists.

Perhaps, however, it is via the miniatures – a more private art form – that we might yield a different view?


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (11)

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A History of Art in England (10): Oh Henry, what have you done?

unknown artist; King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII (1491-1547; reigned from 1509)

by an unknown artist [c.1520; National Portrait Gallery, London; c/o artuk.org]

“The life of English painting, which had grown feeble just before the Reformation, was all but extinguished in the period that followed” Rothenstein tells us in An Introduction to English Painting (p.18). “The break with Rome in 1534 led finally to an alliance between the Government and the forces of Puritan iconoclasm” and there was an attack upon religious art “which developed, in the end, to an attack upon all art.”

“Through the decades from 1530-1570, the Tudor government set out to destroy a whole way of life… the great shrines of medieval England… the monasteries and the monks… every sculpted and painted image from every parish church… the Latin mass, processions, the cult of saints, purgatory and the cycle of saints’ days which since time immemorial had framed the year for everyone… the ladder from earth to heaven by way of physical artefacts and symbolic acts… [all] had been swept away… having in the long term a profound impact upon the structure of people’s minds and imaginations.” (Roy Strong The Spirit of Britain pp.140-1).

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, paintings and wall-paintings in churches especially, were obliterated or scratched out and defaced. Centuries of common visual culture was not only removed but denounced right across the country. There were public bonfires of ecclesiastical images and artefacts. Rebellions against such destruction – for example the Pilgrimage of Grace – met with extraordinary suppression. The effect of all this upon non-puritanical men and women – their imaginations, sense of self, sense of community, ways of seeing the world – must have been shattering. Suddenly they were violently adrift in a sea of whitewash.

And what happened to the paynters and their workshops?

Rothenstein describes a nationwide cultural collapse of expertise, knowledge and desire.


Within Henry’s court however, two aspects of visual culture were developed:

1. A decorative, theatrical staging of events to uphold and increase royal magnificence and splendour.

Roy Strong terms this “court art”, royal propaganda, as Henry cut the nation from the networks of Christendom and secured political power at home.
Henry himself was far from ignorant when it came to art (and its power) and Strong notes that one influence upon him may have been Anne Boleyn’s strong visual sensibility. Palaces shone with gold; interiors were meant to dazzle beholders. And outside, in great gardens, wooden boards that held raised flower beds were painted in the Tudor colours of white and green, amidst a forest of heraldry – painted emblems of lions, griffins and dragons – held up on posts.

2. A renewed desire for portraiture.
In the 1520s, Henry recruited the Flemish Hornebolte (or Horenbout) family – Gerard, Lucas and Susanna – to work for him. In the Netherlands, Gerard was a highly-regarded illuminator of manuscripts. In England, Lucas would become King’s Painter working on miniature portraits, painted from life.

Portrait miniatures of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (1525-26, by Lucas Horenbout)

But, as Rothenstein notes, the artist we most associate with Henry VIII is Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)who first came to England in 1526 for two years under the patronage of Thomas More for whom he painted a series of portraits, including the first family group portrait, the original of which is now lost, but Holbein’s preparatory drawing remains.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) [Chiswick House; c/o artuk.org]; Study for a portrait of Thomas More’s family, [c. 1527; Kunstmuseum Basel]

It’s interesting to note Roy Strong’s comment here (The Spirit of Britain, p.164):
“The notion of a picture being a work of art did not exist in Tudor England but admiration for verisimilitude most definitely did.”

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If you click on the ‘description’ and ‘in depth’ for the National Gallery’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, they have a brilliant description of that ‘verisimilitude’ from the contours of the profiled face, to the textures of silk and fur. I’m particularly intrigued too by the colours – they are certainly rich, especially that gorgeous green-blue background, but surely altogether quite dull in comparison with say the illuminated manuscript images. To be investigated further, but I do wonder what people at the time might have thought of Holbein’s work.

Holbein returned to England in 1532.

We’re in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” territory at this point in time: Catherine of Aragon dismissed, Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the resignation of Thomas More… The artist found favour instead within the radical new power circles of the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell who had become the king’s secretary in 1534, controlling all aspects of government, including artistic propaganda [Wikipedia]. The television series of Wolf Hall is still on BBC i-player, and the website has numerous discussions of the locations and characters involved then and now.

Holbein became King’s Painter in 1536 which included his involvement in the stage sets and pageantry side of court art as well as portrait painting – for which he had a studio and assistants, although this seems to be much debated.
And of course, priorities were changing again:

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Portrait of Jane Seymour (1509? -1537) , circa 1536-37, Hans Holbein the Younger Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

These are grand portraits of the key figures in Henry’s court, those who are meant to be seen and recognised. The Royal Collection Trust also has Holbein’s sketchbook, his life-drawings of court personalities, many now of ‘unknown’ name:

But I guess there’s one image from Holbein’s time at Henry’s court that stands out:

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King Henry VIII (his father Henry VII in the background) in
ink and watercolour by Holbein from about 1536-1537, currently at the National Gallery.

This image is part of a preparatory drawing for a wall-painting commissioned by Henry VIII from Holbein. The wall-painting in Whitehall Palace was completed in 1537, but subsequently destroyed by fire. However…

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The Whitehall Mural by George Vertue (1684-1756) [1737; Royal Collection Trust]
Holbein’s most important project for Henry VIII was the mural he painted at Whitehall Palace in 1537 to demonstrate the Tudor lineage. This showed the King and Jane Seymour, with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry’s confident pose became the most recognised image of the King.


The portrait genre seems to have been particularly favoured above all else by Henry and his courtiers. As Roy Strong notes, Holbein was not primarily a portrait painter before coming to England. Yet although Holbein became the most renowned of Painters, he did not ‘found’ a school as such.

One British artist however who may have worked alongside Holbein is John Bettes

A Man in a Black Cap 1545 by John Bettes active 1531-1570

A Man in a Black Cap by John Bettes [1545; Tate]

Before we leave Henry, though, we should note that the art of illumination did not disappear during his reign: The Psalter of Henry VIII is a 16th-century illuminated psalter that belonged to Henry VIII of England, now in the British Library. The king commissioned the book in the early 1540s from the French illuminator Jean Mallard, and what is especially interesting is that the psalter contains eight miniatures, amongst them scenes of the king himself, reading in his bedroom:

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and of him playing the harp with his jester Will Somers in attendance.

It seems to me that jesters are especially appropriate for today, May 1st 2020 (despite lockdown).

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole, around which dancers often circle with ribbons. Historically, Morris dancing has been linked to May Day celebrations. The earliest records of maypole celebrations date to the 14th century, and by the 15th century the maypole tradition was well established in southern Britain.

Not that Henry would have been dancing around the maypole in 1536, for it was at the May Day jousting tournament that he up and left, having just been informed of Anne Boleyn’s “infidelities”.

However, he may have turned to a more positive vision by way of his Book of Hours, in which the calendar page for May shows a young man and woman gathering in flowering branches.

Happy May Day one and all!

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The Hours of Henry VIII, illuminated by Jean Poyet, France, Tours [c.1500; Morgan Library, New York]

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (10)

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